Well, that was weird. Madison Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins keeps what can most charitably be described as a low profile in the community. But he penned a column on Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal editorial page in which he flew at 30,000 feet over the big, big picture issue of the need to invest in schools instead of prisons.
His writing was eloquent at times and I agreed with his basic point, if not with every detail. But really? With all of the important nitty-gritty issues facing his district right now he was up in the clouds when parents, students, teachers and taxpayers down here on the ground would like some clear direction from him on some specific issues.
Jenkins doesn’t write about the continuing achievement gap between white and Black students but instead focuses on the history of slavery. Is he trying to excuse himself and the district for lack of progress on that issue by essentially saying that the problems are too deeply rooted? It’s not clear because he doesn’t get anywhere near the troubling topic of the achievement gap.
On that very same editorial page the State Journal editorial board raised the very salient question of why, in a community that is growing rapidly, the Madison public schools have a declining enrollment. A failing school district can be deadly for an entire community. That, it seems to me, should have been the topic of any superintendent’s column, but Jenkins didn’t even mention it.
Last semester Jenkins’ central office fired popular Sennett Middle School Principal Jeffrey Copeland, only to have the School Board reinstate him in December. Jenkins has had nothing to say about that. He didn’t even sign the letter that dismissed Copeland back in September, instead handing it off to an underling. The Copeland incident was important because his popularity stemmed from his imposition of good order in the school. What’s Jenkins’ approach to keeping schools orderly and safe? Not a word about that in his lengthy column.
A couple of years ago School Resource Officers were taken out of the high schools, but now Police Chief Shon Barnes has put neighborhood officers in the areas surrounding the schools. That was in response to some pretty significant violent incidents in and around the schools in the last year or so. What’s Jenkins’ philosophy and strategy on school safety? He doesn’t say.
There has been a long debate among staff and School Board members over stand alone honors classes. A move to get rid of them because they don’t attract many Black students failed on a narrow vote before the Board recently. What’s Jenkins’ view on that question? Another issue not addressed in his column.
Madison’s high profile One City charter school has had to cancel its upper classes. Those students will need to be absorbed by other schools mostly in the Madison district. What’s his plan for those students, for recovering state school aids related to them and about One City’s future? No word from Jenkins on that, though he does hint that he doesn’t like state money going to charter schools.
Most school districts, including this one, have been struggling to recruit and retain teachers. What’s Jenkins’ plan to get the best teachers to join his district and to keep them? If he’s thought about that question he’s not letting on.
I suppose Jenkins’ wrote would he did because it was Martin Luther King weekend, though he makes no direct reference to King. But here’s my main point. Black students — and any students — are not well-served by soaring rhetoric not backed up by work in every classroom and every school corridor. King could soar in his speeches because he had earned that gravitas by doing the hard organizing work in community after community. His rhetoric was built on a foundation of grassroots accomplishment. It didn’t dangle above the fray.
There are real, on-the-ground issues that Jenkins has been AWOL on for semester after semester, and his column just reenforced the notion that he doesn’t want to lead on them or even address them. His Sunday column made some valid points with which virtually no Madisonian (including this one) would disagree. But leadership doesn’t take place at 30,000 feet. It happens much closer to earth.