Carlton Jenkins’ first full calendar year as Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent featured a variety of challenging events.
From reopening school buildings after nearly a year in virtual learning in March 2021 to safety incidents and questions about communication this fall as even more students returned, Jenkins oversaw the district’s response to the ongoing pandemic and its fallout.
Even on the last day of the year, he answered questions at a press conference about the announcement one day earlier that winter break would be extended and students would initially return to virtual learning.
Through all of it, he said in a recent interview with the Cap Times, the Madison community lived up to his expectations — both in their support of students and in the discussions about all of the issues facing Madison education.
“I like the fact that we have the ability to debate it,” said Jenkins, who became MMSD superintendent in August 2020. “Whether you like it or not in Madison, we will debate. And I see Madison as having a community that really does care about Madisonians, our children, and about our quality of life.”
He called on that community to help with the most significant ongoing challenge: keeping school buildings open. With staff shortages and new COVID-19 variants, it’s more than simply looking at case numbers to determine the risks, he said.
“We’re going to be making asks of the community. Right now, there are staffing shortages — buses, teachers, administrators,” he said. “It’s combining science with the logistics of trying to continue to keep everyone safe but provide high-quality instruction.”
Those asks include local businesses getting their staff certified to substitute teach and volunteering to do so one day each month.
“We have a lot of businesses here,” he said. “If they subbed one day a month, that would take us through the rest of the year with enough staffing to fill these vacancies. And we’re at a critical spot like across the rest of the country right now.”
That critical spot, which had “every able-bodied” central office staff person out at school buildings last week, is more than a simple numbers game, he added, as they want to ensure the social-emotional and mental health of staff.
“Can we maintain that and can we have teachers not having preps and going from the beginning of the day to the end of the day not having a restroom break? Is that sustainable?” he asked. “Are they going to be the best teacher in front of your little kid if they never get a break?
“Then the body breaks down, that’s not even COVID-related, you’re just worn out.”
In the meantime, he said, district officials will continue to follow experts’ guidance on best practices, even as it changes “minute by minute, hour by hour.” Among the best practices: “students are better in school, so we want them in school.”
The district made an exception for the first week of the new year, he said, in consideration of a variety of factors, from the mental health of nurses and other staff to wanting to avoid a back and forth of opening only to close again. He pointed to the Green Bay Area School District, which has had some schools close this week for COVID-related staff shortages after initially opening, and said they projected MMSD would have had to do the same.
“(We decided) we’re going to recalibrate around the mitigation strategies, we will recalibrate around what we need to do for virtual and we’re going to give our staff an opportunity to have a discussion,” he said.
Looking ahead, Jenkins said the district is “prepared to respond in a way that’s going to be safe and orderly with our intent of keeping schools open.”
“This time, I’m going to the business community, to the churches and saying, ‘Hey, let’s start anticipating together, scenario planning, so if something happens, we can be a model for how you do it,’” he said. “Keep it rolling and keep safety first and then the rest of the stuff.”
That “rest of the stuff” includes a continued focus on the social-emotional health and well-being of students, who Jenkins said lost some of their relationship-building time and conflict-resolution skills while they were isolated in virtual learning. That contributed to the safety issues that cropped up this fall, he said.
“Starting off this school year, in my estimation, we saw an increase in choices students were making of how they engage or could not engage properly resolving conflicts,” he said. “In certain cases, that led to some violent situations amongst a few trying to process it, and we’re trying to help them process it.
“Relationships in isolation are not the same as they are in-person.”
He acknowledged the district’s communication at times has missed the mark.
“We have several people review it, but it’s the one lens that wasn’t there,” he said. “So we’re just trying to get better, but we’re not perfect.”
Jenkins said he welcomes critical feedback on that and other subjects, which he said can provide a chance to reflect on decisions and think about how to better communicate the reasoning behind them — though he added that “bullies will not move MMSD,” citing a difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited feedback.
“Thank you to all those critics, because honestly, the criticism, it’s good for the soul,” he said. “It gives you something to think about alternatively.”
While the pandemic isn’t likely going away anytime soon, Jenkins is still hopeful that the Madison community can “ensure that all of our children, all of our staff and our community can find a way to stay together until we get in a different space as we’re leaning forward.”
“I don’t want to give anybody false hope and say it’s going to get better, but we can get better,” he said. “Find a way to trust one another to work through this, navigate these times in the interest of everybody. That’s what I’m hoping that we can do.”