As a high school student, Barbara Jenkins attempted to convince her guidance counselor that she wanted to be a teacher.
“You don’t want to teach. You won’t make any money,” the counselor responded. “You should be an accountant.” And with that pronouncement, she signed Barbara up for an accounting class. She did the ledgers and passed the tests, but Barbara said she was bored to tears.
“I never went through any career builder inventories. I just always wanted to be a teacher,” said Barbara, now entering her 35th year in education and her sixth as the leader of Orange County Public Schools, the ninth-largest school district in the country.
As she walks the classrooms of 191 schools throughout the year, Barbara carries the mental model of her first-grade teacher at a segregated central Florida elementary school, Ms. Octavia Guinyard.
“She was just a phenomenal teacher. She was firm, pretty strict, and she made us love reading,” said Barbara, the middle of five children. “I, in turn, figured it was my job to teach my younger siblings or baby dolls or anybody else I could pretend with to have a classroom, and instructing them.”
At some point in second grade, the district implemented an integration plan where teachers exchanged classrooms. Her new teacher was White, and she noticed a difference immediately.
“She clearly didn’t want to be there with little Black children. Every day, she’d come in and fill up the board with a bunch of words and math problems and hand out some dittos and just tell us to do work,” Barbara said.
Her next teacher, Mrs. Hope, was also White. This White teacher, though, was different. “She seemed to care about us and was like a ray of sunshine,” Barbara recalled. “She was very positive and engaging.”
“During the first attempts at integration, I had a very sorry excuse for a teacher on the one hand, and then a wonderful teacher who didn’t mind working with children of color,” Barbara summarized. Mrs. Hope also taught Barbara’s class their first phrases in Spanish, which she remembers to this day.
As a result, Barbara understood, early on, the value of teachers’ expectations of their students. That experience is her internal guide as she serves the 207,000 K-12 students of Orange County, Florida — the same schools she attended as a child.
“I want teachers who believe in the power of education and the power of learning, who want to turn on that light bulb and unlock learning that impacts their future. So that also means I want teachers who have high expectations,” Barbara said.
Barbara’s mother — who attended the historically Black Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) to meet her parents’ demands — also had high expectations for her own children. For Barbara and her siblings, there were no excuses and no detours. They all were expected to go to college. Her two older brothers retired from the armed services, her younger sister also earned a doctorate in education, like Barbara, and her younger brother works as a public information officer for another local agency in Orange County.
Even though she never became an accountant, Barbara has used those skills and plenty others in her professional journey. She served in a wide variety of roles in Orange County, as well as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg — from chief of staff to assistant superintendent of human resources to chief negotiator. Throughout her career, she has been a teacher, principal and district leader, overseeing teaching and learning, area superintendents, strategic planning, labor relations, information systems and public relations before assuming the role of OCPS superintendent from her mentor, Ron Blocker. He recruited her back to OCPS from North Carolina and then groomed her to be ready to replace him when he retired two years later.
“Ron kept pushing this notion that it’s ‘really time for you to run your own district.’” She called him “sensei,” and he called her “grasshopper” — harkening back to the 1970s television series, Kung Fu. It was time for Barbara to step out into her superintendent journey in 2012.
“I’m trying to get an organization focused on a singular vision. In Orange County, the school board not only understands governance but they are co-owners of the vision of student success,” said Barbara. That ability to create that single vision speaks to Barbara’s strengths as a communicator.
When Florida changed its accountability system to link teacher compensation to student achievement, Barbara and her team worked tirelessly to support teachers through the transition, developing district-wide professional development and professional learning communities. In 2014, the first year of implementation of an assessment to measure student learning outcomes on new college- and career-ready standards, she lobbied to hold teacher evaluations harmless from the results for at least two years so they could acclimate to the new requirements. The state acquiesced.
“I’ve learned that if teachers are going to be expected to make adjustments, they have to feel that you are in the trenches fighting on their behalf, helping them to be successful,” Barbara said. “The test is coming at the end of the year. The state of Florida has legislatively determined that your raise is going to be impacted by student outcomes and your eventual employment can be impacted by student outcomes. Let us help.’”
The messaging and support are getting through. In Orange County, the graduation rate is above 90 percent and the district has earned a “B” rating from the state.
But, in Barbara’s eyes, there is still so much more to do. She worked with the teachers’ union to establish a pilot at one of the highest-need middle schools. “We cannot put new teachers in our neediest schools. We’ve got to draw talent and you’ve got to help us,” she told succeeding union presidents. When OCPS put the word out that strong teachers with track records of boosting achievement among traditionally lower-performing student groups could earn a $20,000 stipend for transferring to that school, the district immediately received 500 applications for openings. Before the incentive was offered, there were none.
“I don’t think we can pretend that some of our teachers don’t work tirelessly in some of our most challenging schools where children have poverty issues to deal with,” Barbara said. “I’m going to do what it takes to draw and keep talent there because the work is going to be tougher. We have to be able to reward them.”
This creativity in the face of accountability is Barbara’s stamp. The district’s LaunchED program is providing 100,000 devices to students this year to support digital learning. In the past five years, accessing rigorous, college-prep coursework has been part of the singular focus of student success. The number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams has increased by 57 and 47 percent, respectively. She is quick to give credit to her team, along with the principals and teachers of OCPS.
Even so, Barbara has garnered numerous awards for her leadership, including being appointed by President Obama as a director of the National Board of Education Sciences and being named the 2017 Florida Superintendent of the Year. In 2015, the Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Magazine both named Barbara as one of the 10 most powerful people in Central Florida. To her two grown children, she is still mom, always ready to watch the latest blockbuster movie, power-shop for bargains or go to church. Then, she sleeps.
She remembers going to conferences where she watched as attendees stopped veteran superintendents to chat or ask for advice. Now, she is getting stopped. “One day you’re watching others, and all of a sudden you’re part of the veteran group. It’s shocking.”
Along with building coalitions around a singular focus, Barbara cares about helping superintendents across the country as a mentor and confidant.
“The work is on behalf of our children throughout this country — not just children in Orlando. I want to see children across the country — particularly those in urban settings where education is absolutely the only thing that can make a difference in their future — I want to make sure I’m giving good advice, trying to help, coach and mold future superintendents,” she said.
In presentations and in private conversations, she encourages superintendents to collaborate with all stakeholders in their work at every turn, recognizing the servant nature of the superintendency.
“You don’t go in with your own plan. You go in and build a coalition so the vision and mission is shared and everyone feels responsible for it,” Barbara said.
A voracious reader, Barbara also has a habit of reading two books in the same time period — one professional and the other for leisure, such as John Grisham novels. Her senior team just finished reading “The End of Average.” When they finished reading “Leaders Eat Last,” they all made efforts to greet others and take their places at the back of the line, once everyone before them had been served.
She leads a learning organization so everyone is expected to continue to learn. Ever the teacher, Barbara has built a career helping others use education as a life-changing tool, one that transforms the lives of children in Orange County and across the country, fulfilling her ultimate legacy goals.
Ms. Guinyard would be proud.