One-on-One: MMSD superintendent addresses staffing, moving forward from the pandemic

Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins talked in depth on a number of topics ahead of the school year.
Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 6:07 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins talked in depth on a number of topics ahead of the school year, including staffing concerns and transparency questions from families.

Leigh Mills: So nice to meet you. I know you started during the pandemic, so slower start to be able to meet you in person, but now you have two years under your belt in the Madison schools and some time to get to know the district, the families, the staff. What is your top priority heading into your third year at the helm?

Carlton Jenkins: Well I tell you, coming out of an unprecedented pandemic, we had to really begin to focus on how do we move from where we were to where we’re going.

Many lessons learned, and so we want to take those lessons and make sure our students are in the best environment possible to actually learn, our teachers in the best environment to make sure that we can learn, accelerate learning. We know that there were some things that perhaps we did not do during a pandemic, but we learned from it too. And we did accelerate in some areas, so our top priority now makes sure that everyone have a smooth through transition, we accelerate and have a breakthrough year for all of our scholars and all of our staff and for our community, it’s just great getting everybody back together.

Leigh Mills: Is COVID still a concern for you?

Carlton Jenkins: COVID is most definitely a concern as we’re paying attention to the CDC. Our state in our public health. We know that COVID is concerned, and there’s always going to be something, but now we’re more prepared when COVID hit 29 months ago, we were not prepared for this pandemic. In fact, we thought we could shut schools down in two days and come back. We didn’t even think we’ll still be in this space this far from it. But we know now more of what we can’t do. We work at our medical advisors and we’re paying attention to all the medical experts, but now it’s down to the nuances of how we can bring schools back in a robust way so that all of our scholars and all of our staff everyone could feel just really safe in this environment and be the best be their best selves. as we tend to the social emotional mental health that we’ve experienced.

Leigh Mills: That’s exactly what I was going to follow up with, because I think when you think about the lasting impact of the pandemic, we know that mental health concerns have become a bigger focus. We also know that some kids are behind academically. So when you think about the lasting impact of the pandemic, you know, what is your biggest concern and in terms of those two elements, the educational component and the mental health component. How do you best take care of your students in regards to those two facets of this?

Carlton Jenkins: First of all, we try to realize that before the pandemic, we had some serious disparities within our educational systems. We had our students. Have our students who are black, brown students who receive services, for ELL, students who receive services for special needs. It’s documented that here in Wisconsin, we have some serious disparities. We know that.

The pandemic only illuminated all of these ills that we have, and shortness of the resources that we have. And even down to the staffing, the staffing shortages. But it just all just seemed to accelerate during the pandemic. So now coming back and understanding, on top of that, these stressors have come about where we’re recognizing, I should say more social, emotional, more mental health. So even though we may understand how to do more mitigation strategies to make sure that everyone’s safe, we also have to pay attention to safety different, differently.

We have to think about what about the social, emotional. We’ve been in isolation. Now we come, just an anxiety, believe it or not, for people coming back together, there’s an anxiety about am I going to be OK, you know. I’ve had COVID. I didn’t have COVID. What would it feel like? What would it look like? So we’re going to be about connections paying attention to learning and safety at the same time is a combination for a good social emotional. So our psychologist or social worker, our support service people. We have to really pay attention to that and make sure that they’re in the emphasis of our discussions that we’re going to try to have about staff returning and so forth.

We have we have Doctor Guetschow, who’s just one of the best, one the best of the state. That’s one thing I think we’re very fortunate in Madison. We have an outstanding staff. And they have paid attention. They have put the voices to the table. Our board members have taken the whole pandemic very serious. So now, we’re at a point. I think. Position for us to really move from where we were leaning forward, building momentum, and now it’s time for a breakthrough in our district and we’re going to take social, emotional, mental health very serious in our district as we continue to deal with the residuals, the residuals are still there, but not fully out yet, but we know how to manage it better now.

Leigh Mills: You mentioned staffing. You feel OK about staffing? because that’s been a national concern for all kinds of industries.

Carlton Jenkins: Yes, and we know that business is number one with staffing shortages. But education is #2. My colleagues and I across the country have been talking about this, some of them have already started back school.

When I look at the number of shortages of our teachers that were just short and when we tried to break that down like right now, they gave me the data the other day, we’re missing 2 kindergarten teachers. Now that’s big, in terms of kindergarten teachers, we want to make sure that we have highly, highly qualified people at all levels. But the kindergarten teachers is just one of those things, personal for me. Making sure that first experience for the child, first experience for the parents that it goes really well. So our staff have been working very hard to try to make sure we close all these gaps.

At this point we’re about 6.9%, roughly, short, but we’re working each day to look at each level to see how we can manage that. We have more highly qualified subs ready this year we have 275 who are ready to step in. We’re calling on our retired teachers. We have roughly 600 subs in our pool, way more than what we had last year, but we’re just going to keep working. And one of the things that I say going back to that social emotional piece as well. I’m asking everybody to work with us. Let’s just do it, but I’m calling for a national day of everybody just chill out for a minute. We’re going to get there. We’re going to get there together. We don’t get there by ourselves. We need the parents, we need retired teachers. If there are some out there who haven’t signed up yet, step up and come back because we want the best people in front of our scholars when they start school at all levels, everything matters.

Physical education teachers, music teachers, art teachers, everyone, the food service people is what has had us concerned last year along with our bus drivers. And right now we’re in a good place with our bus drivers to run our routes and we’re looking forward to what’s going to happen over the next couple of days. But our food service people, if there are people out there who want to jump in and be a food service, participate on our team, you needed. So I’m asking to any and everybody if you want to be a part of a district that’s moving part of a city. So if there’s someone that you have a relative in California, Florida like we’ve had people calling in from all over wanting to join our team, we are having our doors open to we’re going to have an interview set up on August the 22nd for those individuals.

Leigh Mills: You mentioned parents and partnerships, and I think that’s an overarching theme across all districts. I hear that as a parent, right? With parents we need you to be In partnership with us. I have to ask you about transparency because over the last year we had a number of families reach out to us with concerns specifically about district administration, not individual teachers. How do you go about continuing to build those relationships when some families aren’t struggling with that? Is there an effort to repair that or do you see it differently as the person at the top in charge of thousands of people?

Carlton Jenkins: Well, actually transparency is something that we all have to continue to work on. And what I have found as I dig into it, it may have been just a lack of full information from that perspective. And so I say, let’s have the conversation. I have continued to talk to our staff about not calling out, but calling in. If someone has a concern, let’s call them in, let’s sit down. Let’s talk about it, let’s lay it all on the table.

Sometimes from my seat to, whether I’m dealing with anybody else in the organization, it may be something that wasn’t clearly communicated or fully communicated. Our goal, and my goal, is to close the gap. Transparency is key if you’re going to have any kind of strong partnership. So if parents or any community partners get into any kind of a situation around communication that they’re feeling as if they don’t have all the information. Let’s just ask another question, and let’s find a way to get to a solution.

I had someone present at the board and they came with solutions in mind. They had some complaints, and to be straightforward, the complaints, some of them were legitimate, and then some of them, as I was sitting, I was saying to myself ‘they don’t have all the information.’ So that individual, I’m going to look to reach out from me personally and have this conversation, but I don’t have to do that all the time because we have great people who can reach back out to individuals and close the gap. That’s happened too many times.

Leigh Mills: So then with parents just I want to make sure we’re giving them good advice because Madison is a big district and you can’t have a long conversation with everybody, right? So what is the best advice for parents, if they find themselves in that position?

Carlton Jenkins: I think to talk directly to the individual that you are dealing with at that time, and if you’re parent, talk to the teacher. You talk to the teacher and have the teacher and administrator work together. Resolve your issues at the local level before it goes up, and if issues don’t get resolved and sometimes you have some don’t, but going in looking for the best solution for your child and then we start there. If it’s someone is dealing in maintenance, same thing, talk to the maintenance department.

If you keep the conversations local and go in with the best intent, and naïve I may be, but I still believe that the majority of the people are just great people and being back in Madison, that’s what I love. We have a lot of good people, but we know too. We have some situations in Madison, all of Madison, not just a school district that we have to continue to work with one another to get to that point. This is an opportunity as I talked to the mayor and as I talked to other individuals in our community. We need to do some restorative here in our district, because there’s been a lot of pain over the years, historical we need to do restorative in our city. Madison’s been this city- great. We’re one of the best cities. We know that, but there some people have not accessed all of Madison. There are some people not accessing all of our school district and we just want to be good citizens and be about human decency. That’s the way I see all of that when we start interacting with one another.

Leigh Mills: I want to also ask about safety. You mentioned that a couple of questions ago, but to talk a little deeper on that as a parent when we saw what happened with you Uvalde, of course, it just brings those concerns back and then more mass shootings continue to happen across our country. Is there something you want to share with parents to reassure them that the students will be and are safe in school? Or as these incidents continue to happen, not in our community, although there was a a threat in Middleton at one point that became unfounded. Is there something you want to reassure them with, or is there something you’re changing your perspective on as we continue to see these happen?

Carlton Jenkins: Yeah, I gave a message to our community early on right after the Uvalde situation. You see all these other situations happen across the country. One of my colleagues in Michigan had a very serious situation there too and we talked in real time about it. And even in our district, you mentioned Middleton, you can say other districts we’ve had scares, or you’ve had situations. We’ve had them definitely, but what we’re trying to do in our district is to say, and I hope we can do this across the country, challenge all parents, or all households because families look different, to have a conversation around love and making sure that individuals feel some sense of support.

That social, emotional that we talked about, in every one of these situations that I’ve been reading about, and I’m talking to my colleagues about it, it comes back to individuals feeling as though they did not belong. And one of our core values is about belonging and it’s about voice. When individuals feel shut down. So I’m asking parents to be the first line of our safety to make sure that we’re talking to and not just parents, mentors, people in the community, wherever places, individuals may go, for us to start thinking about human connectivity again, and in our district we’re looking at just the word ‘safety,’ because after you think of safety, you think of a gun. You think of a fight, you think of whatever. And we’ve had a gun in our schools. We’ve had fights in our schools and we’re doing what we call a restorative conversation. We’re sending our safety people out to talk to the families and saying, ‘hey, help us, how can we help you? How can we, this was an event. How can we make our community a better community? Our schools a better community, by providing support.’ So that would be my one suggestion, but I think that we need to take it to heart. How can we be better human beings and not leave individuals in isolation? The isolation is a seriously, we saw a rise of events taking place during the pandemic because people were in isolated spaces, and that’s just not mentally good for any of us.

Leigh Mills: You mentioned your safety people. Which reminds me I wanted to ask you about SROs as this continues to be a conversation. This is just an anecdotal perception, so correct me if I’m wrong. It seems as we listen to scanner calls and hear police calls for service that there were more or certainly a number of calls over the last year, which did happen to be the first year without SROs or police officers in each of the high school buildings. I know that the Madison police chief back in the spring hinted to the idea about a modified or a different version of an SRO program, that maybe we should be looking into that. Is that something that you’re considering or willing to consider? Is there a different alternative that you think might work, or at this point, do you feel not having officers in the buildings is working?

Carlton Jenkins: Well for us right now, I believe there’s evidence to continue to look at in terms of first of all, when you say the calls. The calls happened prior to the pandemic, we removed officers just before I got here from all of our schools, right? And when you’re looking at the data and I talked to Dr. Barnes, first of all. I have much appreciation for Dr. Barnes as he’s trying to be creative and respecting the school district with what we’re doing. And so we are looking at how do we think about safety even differently, right? Different to in our schools and that whole belonging piece again, the whole connected piece again, the whole restorative piece again.

In our community we have people with varying opinions about if officers should be in school, shouldn’t be in school. So he and I, we still have conversations about how is it that we have a safe community? How is it that we have a safe, safe schools? The community is they are to a part of the schools, and the schools are part of the community. So really, you have a conversation, but in terms of how we resource them, we have to still think about this in terms of moving forward.

We also have to acknowledge, there’s been a lot of trauma when you think about police officers on certain communities. I, for one, did not grow up having a great relationship with the police officers, because every time they came in my community it was traumatic. Which left us traumatized of seeing a friend or seeing whatever, and it was never any kind of restorative. It was pain caused, so you grow up with that kind of relationship. Pulling up next to a police officer in a car, there’s a different relationship that it has been historically in this country with people of color. I’m talking about Black and Brown people, poor people, than it has been for everyone else. We haven’t always had resource officers in schools. Schools didn’t start out like that. So when we talk about all the mass shootings that you just mentioned you remember, now we did have resource officers in those schools and what was the difference? And I’m not going to judge the officers as a whole on that. But what was the difference when we had the officers there in the incidents took place? That is reactive. How do we become proactive and get to the scholar as a scholar and now is beyond just the scholars the whole family? It’s the whole community.

We must pause and have this conversation instead of looking at polarizing it, OK, it’s this party or this party? Stop it. To me, that’s nonsense, and we have to come together and say what’s going to be the best in the best interests of all of our scholars. All of our families, all of our community, and that’s kind of where with the new thoughts that Dr. Barnes may have. He and I, we’re having conversations about what we want to do in the community, and I’m talking about what I would like to see our staff doing in schools and so I think we’re going to get to a place. But the data is different prior to pandemic, it’s not even fair comparative data than during a pandemic because we know internationally social, emotional, mental health issues went way up, and we saw individuals making decisions that they wouldn’t normally have made so, but it’s work to be done. There is no way around that. We want to ensure and we’re saying to parents now ‘look, we’re taking every measure to make sure that we’re going to increase the number of social workers, increase the number of psychologists, individuals who can work with students, work with our staff, work with the families and that’s really important.

And that’s what’s important for the legislators to look at during this time. Don’t cut funding for schools, increase funding for schools, because when the funding was cut, the Joint Finance Committee gave us zero-zero towards schools when we’re coming out of a pandemic as we’re talking about right now, we need more resources so we can make all the appropriate decisions. Right now we’re being forced to make some decisions and imagine that. If I have to make a decision between a psychologist or a school resource officer, a psychologist or a kindergarten teacher, you know we don’t want to make decisions between what’s right and what’s right, but we are prepared to make tough decisions on this is not necessarily in the best interests of all, and this is.

Leigh Mills: OK, I have two follow-ups so not to simplify because that was a very complex answer and I just want to make sure what I’m hearing from you is, there might not be the perfect answer yet because we don’t know and it’s still a work in progress. Is that kind of the way to handle to to summarize your feeling about that.

Carlton Jenkins: My feeling succinctly is that we have learned a lot during the pandemic of what we shouldn’t do, and we’re beginning to understand some of the things that we should do. So yes, we’re in this space right now where we’re working together to find that appropriate solution, but are all the answers there? No, I couldn’t sit here and tell you that.

Leigh Mills: And I don’t want this to become political, but because you brought up funding and we know that it’s a year where there’s a gubernatorial election. Are you concerned heading into that into November? Obviously, funding is on your mind and that isn’t necessarily controlled by the governor, the legislature, but that political, the power that politicians have to control then the resources you have is significant.

Carlton Jenkins: Yeah, I thank you for bringing that up, actually. I’ve been speaking on this topic quite a bit lately and I think the polarization has taken place based upon the fact that it’s an election. Our educators are educators 24/7, 365 days a week. When you send your child to us, they could be a Republican ,they could be a Democrat, they could be a independent. We just want the appropriate resources to support the child. I think what’s happening outside of our arena has become political and we’re just continuing to take on the polarization in the schools.

We need individuals who want to be legislators, right, heads of states. The President, President Biden, I come to you and ask that we get into a conversation about our national defense, which is public education. And so if we look at public education as our strongest national defense. Then we would pour it in. And I’m only asking that we take a third of what we think, I don’t want to take any way from any preparation from national warring, but if we take a third of what we planned to spend when it’s war time and push it back into education, we can resolve the things around social, emotional, mental health triggers resolve the things around teacher shortages, we can increase wages for everyone in education.

So what is happening right now with the elections coming up? I am asking our communities to step out and step up and raise the question- if we would have just kept pace with the funding for education relative to the index, we would have 48 million more dollars in our district. If we were to just kept pace with the 50% of reimbursement for special ed, we would’ve had 16.8 more dollars in our district. But when we don’t come in with the same interests of taking care of our most prized joy, our scholars, then it becomes polarized and we’re forced to make decisions between what’s right and what’s right.

I could make a decision any day between what’s right and what’s wrong, but what’s right and what’s right, I can’t give up one child for the next.

Leigh Mills: OK, I have two more questions, ‘cause I have you and I see people probably want to get in here but I have you and I just want to ask two more questions. One is about economy and inflation because that’s another thing we know is affecting families. We know that local food pantries are telling us more local families are coming asking for help. What is the impact on the children then when they come to school? And is there a plan to make sure, regardless of those family concerns, that that all kids are ready to learn when they get to school?

Carlton Jenkins: And again, that’s us partnering with the families because we realized that they we’d poured for the last 12 years less money into public education. Our inflation has gone up 44%.

We have not kept pace, but even during the pandemic we were so proud of our entire staff and our entire community where we came together to make sure we were taking care of all the needs of all of our students. Our students when they come, we’re here to support them. We’re here to support their families, so be assured families. In the MMSD we are here to make sure that your children are coming to a place that’s welcoming and that we are going to take care of your child as if you would take care of your child. That’s what they could be assured of.

Leigh Mills: And this probably feels a little heavy ‘cause it’s easier to talk about concerns than hopes and joys, but I want to end on a positive note. What is your biggest hope for this coming school year and each one of your students?

Carlton Jenkins: My biggest hope, and I think I share this because we’re talking about a breakthrough during our administrators academy. We are all talking about this is the breakthrough year that every child can feel like that they’re in our classroom and they feel safe. They feel like they could be the learner that they want to be.

They could come in one day and have a big idea and take that big idea and make it become something that every staff person feels safe social, emotionally, mentally, that our community, Madison, the city that I have come back to, I’m not new to Madison back to Madison, can live up to what we all believe it could be and be in a place that provides a school system where every child truly thrives and feel like they belong in this community and not a second class citizen.

That’s what I hope for.

Leigh Mills: Is there anything else you’d like to add or make sure that the families throughout the district, no or here, as this runs one week before school starts.

Carlton Jenkins: Please know that you’re coming back and we’re going to be prepared. All of our staff to receive all of our scholars and we’re going to be working together to make sure that Madison Metropolitan School District is going to provide a wonderful experience.

Not only for the students, but for the parents as well in our entire community.