Dr. Carlton Jenkins Reflects on Leading MMSD During the Pandemic: Educating during Two Pandemics

Part 2 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

When Dr. Carlton Jenkins assumed the helm of the Madison Metropolitan School District as its superintendent in August 2020, he was already a seasoned veteran in fighting two pandemics — dealing with two fronts in the battle to achieve educational equity for all students — with the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial achievement gap severely impacting Madison’s schools. Madison’s schools had gone virtual and the Black Lives Matter protests were in Madison’s streets on a nightly basis with many MMSD students participating.

Carlton wants to see the Madison public schools become anti-racist institutions where the structural racism is removed so that the schools are positive places where all students are encouraged by their environment to thrive and succeed.

“Everything that is racist, we want to push against it,” Jenkins said. “We will push up against it. Diversity increases the number of individuals who may have different backgrounds, be it racially, economically, bringing in our LGBTQ community. With diversity, you can look alike and not be alike. And I think it is greater than what has come about in this made-up racial identification. In America, we talk about race. Around the world, we talk about ethnicity. I think we have to go deeper in talking about just race itself. But even bigger than that, we have to talk about human decency, individuals treating one another as a human being. And that’s what happened in America from the beginning of America’s interfacing with Natives. The whole action towards them was the beginning of the dehumanization that continued with slavery. And so we have to know our history. Otherwise we will repeat our history. Now I think this whole idea of having a racist attitude of participating in any way, shape or form, lessens the humanization of an individual, physically and intellectually. That’s what we’re against. We’re against that. Why wouldn’t you be about diversity in these days and times and realize that everyone really does matter. That’s kind of where we are.”

MMSD has taken on a Black Excellence campaign and Jenkins is very supportive of it. While MMSD historically focused on the deficits of most Black students, Black Excellence allows the students to explore their interests and talents and find their assets that they can build upon academically.

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Dr. Carlton Jenkins became MMSD Superintendent during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter

“When you look deeply into the data, the group that is a common denominator in terms of when we use these mainstream types of measurements is African American,” Jenkins said. “The whole notion, first of all, was to reject that those measurements give an overall value to the contributions that individuals are making, particularly Black students. It was to point out the excellence that would occur. A child may not do well on this assessment, but if you assess this child like this, this child is thriving. This child is confident. This child is socially and emotionally together. When you look at the achievement of some of our adults in the community and often just like yourself as a journalist, when you start talking about some of the fantastic journalists who have kept the stories alive since the beginning of time, when we think about some of our Blacks, they aren’t mentioned. They are just doing the work.  And so it was to uplift and show there are signs and individuals doing excellent things. It may not be what someone else calls excellence — and it’s not even looking for validation — bit it is saying, ‘You know what? That’s Black Excellence right there.’”

According to Jenkins, it is difficult to use traditional assessments to truly evaluate where students are right now because the pandemic has skewed results and assessments would not be very accurate. Right now, the district is working to get the academic ship moving forward in some sense of normalcy and only then will traditional assessments really give us accurate data.

“Right now with COVID-19, we’ve all lost track,” Jenkins said. “What is a fair comparison? We are pretty much where everyone is at this time. The assessments that we have traditionally used are not accurate when you start thinking about how students have persisted just to be healthy and then still taking an assessment because everyone has to take the assessment. It’s Maxwell’s Theory. The top of the hierarchy is safety. Assessment isn’t more important than someone’s mental health. Do you really want to use that and say, ‘Okay, this is where we are?’ Students had to navigate, teachers had to navigate the virtual space like never before. And at the same time, it is time to be safe. We are further along with the whole health pandemic of knowing more of how we can contract it and mitigation strategies.  We are much further along with that. But when we think about the brain and the agility that is having to take place right now, who could honestly say that they are going to give an assessment and expect everyone to have a fair assessment.”

Jenkins emphasized that the pandemic brutally highlighted the resource gap that fuels the academic disparity gap. While anyone could contract COVID-19 regardless of their position in life, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disparate impact on people’s lives.

“If you want to find a line, if you want to talk about the gaps, look at who does the work,” Jenkins observed. “You saw a lot of Black and Brown poor people and poor Whites working. And you saw a lot of middle class regardless of race working virtual. If the virus is so deadly, how could some go to work and some not go to work. We had some teachers who deliver special needs services who were here. They never left. We had custodians and food service people — just not in the school system, but in the public too — they worked when everyone else went virtual. But you still had to go to AutoZone. I was talking to the guy at AutoZone the other day and he said, ‘Man, we never left. We’ve been here the whole time.’ The same was with the grocery stores and restaurants. Who would ever have thought that a cashier would have been considered a ‘first responder?’ But they were. If they weren’t at work, what would have happened? Some of our children who are some of the main income earners in their families, they were doing virtual school and going to work, more than 40 hours. And then I bring them in and say, ‘Hey sit down and take this assessment. How did you do?’ They didn’t do as well as they could have done. That’s the way that I look at it.”

The science of COVID-19 directs MMSD policy. But MMSD’s strategies and activities continue to adapt so that they are just on the other side of the COVID-19 safety line. MMSD is ready to be as normal as COVID-19 will allow it to be.

“We’re leaning forward because we know more things now like the mitigation strategy,” Jenkins said. “We know putting students in isolation, being totally virtual, is not the best thing. We’re putting some mitigation strategies in place. As you have probably noticed, we have a lower rate of students being impacted. We’ll quarantine students right now out of safety precaution so that we don’t contract it up in here. We’re leaning forward. We’re looking at the best strategies. We’re part of a local medical advisory team. We’re part of a state and national group looking at the

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best practices so that we can operationalize them and bring people back in a way that they will remain safe and they can return home. But at the same time, we’re saying how we are going to focus in on excellence. We want excellence in terms of mitigation strategies so that people can be safe and then we can begin social and emotional processes to help people psychologically get back into this mode of learning. We’re leaning forward on that. When we are looking at excellence, we are also looking at it from an equitable standpoint. This pandemic impacted Black and Brown people and poor people more than anyone else. We’re trying to see how that multi-generational family can get some of that same access. We’ve made some decisions, tough, not to do concurrent teaching. But we’re starting off with our virtual schools, pre-k through 12. First we were going to go 6-12, but then we realized we wanted to have a space for our youngest learners too who may be medically fragile or who may need that option psychologically, so we went pre-k-12. But we are leaning into our schools and we are seeing that the students’ social and emotional goes up because we are now creating co-curricular activity opportunities through our safety net of mitigation.”

In 2022, the renovation of Madison’s schools, particularly its high schools will be in full gear. Due to the timing of the renovation and other strategies, MMSD has also been able to do some maintenance work in its elementary schools. It has also bought the Badger Rock building on Badger Road and will be adding other things like a gymnasium to it. In spite of the pandemic the work on behalf of Madison’s students moves upward and beyond.