Orange County Public Schools
Everything we do is focused on nurturing our students. Our mission statement is to lead students to success. We can’t expect them to get there on their own.
“The challenge in an urban setting,” explains Barbara Jenkins, “is to make sure you’re serving all of your children, to identify those who are easily overlooked and push all children to reach their potential.”
As superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in central Florida, Barbara leads the 10th largest school district in the nation, which is home to more than 200,000 students who speak 160 languages; English is not always one of them. Like many county-wide districts, OCPS serves students from all walks of life, from the very affluent to the homeless.
Barbara refers to the ever-increasing variety of OCPS student experience as a “beautiful tapestry” she and her team are privileged to serve, and that tapestry is still being woven. In 2014, 6,000 students entered OCPS. The following year 5,000 more enrolled.
Barbara grew up in central Florida and is a proud product of Orange County Public Schools. From a young age, she dreamed of being a teacher but was warned by an educator that she was too smart to pursue that path. Thankfully, that didn’t faze her.
Barbara earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education and began teaching in OCPS. She was admitted to a district program to train new principals and earned a post as an elementary principal. More than a decade before federal law required it, she was using data to inform decisions and guide her efforts to drive equity. “We analyzed disaggregated data to focus attention on the students with the greatest needs. We can change their trajectory by giving opportunities to students who didn’t think they had many.”
Barbara worked her way up the ranks to a position supervising 24 elementary school principals. Her track record caught the attention of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which hired her away as assistant superintendent of human resources. There, she spearheaded several staffing strategies to reverse unintentional district-wide inequities in access to strong teachers.
Seven years later, Barbara returned to OCPS with the goal of eventually leading the system. As deputy superintendent, she oversaw the creation of a new framework for teaching and learning to initiate systemic improvements and the replication of best practices in all schools across the district. After serving in various leadership roles, she was named superintendent in 2012 by a unanimous board vote.
Like other large districts, OCPS has struggled to balance an increase in student needs with a decrease in available resources. “We had lots of people coming to Central Florida hoping there would be opportunities for them,” said Barbara. “During the recession, those opportunities just weren’t there.”
Despite the influx of students, OCPS has improved in a number of ways, including increased participation in Advanced Placement courses and the number of students who pass the AP exams to earn college credit. In fact, under Barbara’s leadership, more than one-third of students are now enrolled in at least one AP course.
“We offered extensive professional development for our AP teachers. For the students, we said that if you just give us a chance, we’re going to make sure you’re successful,” she said. Students were given academic support and paired up with peer tutors who could share their own experiences and success with their mentees.
Not only are more students gaining access to rigorous classes, they earn college credit, which increases the likelihood of continuing their education beyond high school. “If they can get past their first college credit while they are with us, the chances of them going to college and completing college increase exponentially,” said Barbara. “Their self-confidence is just through the roof.”
She is not one to tout her own accomplishments, but Barbara’s extensive community work and steady progress at the helm of OCPS has not gone unnoticed. She’s received numerous awards, including being named Central Florida Woman of the Year by the Women’s Executive Council and one of Orlando Sentinel's 10 most powerful people in central Florida. She also extends her public service to a number of nonprofits whose organizations aid her students in some way, serving on the board of directors of organizations like the Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness and the Orange County Youth Mental Health Commission.
Under her tenure, OCPS also was named co-winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2014. Ever humble, Dr. Jenkins says of the award, “Although the Broad Prize is commendation for the work we have done, we understand we still have miles to go.”
Began career as elementary school teacher
Assistant superintendent for human resources, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Deputy superintendent, Orange County Public Schools
Named 2017 Florida Superintendent of the Year by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and Florida School Board Association
Orange County Public Schools
Seventh largest district in the U.S.
More than 100,000 students enrolled in 25 schools
Winner of 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education