While the City of Madison experienced a hectic summer full of protests, health mandates, recall efforts and police oversight measures, the Madison Metropolitan School District has had a turbulent year of its own.
After a chaotic, months-long search, Carlton Jenkins was appointed in early August as the new superintendent of the nearly thirty thousand-student school system. Jenkins was tapped for the job after the candidate who was awarded the post in February, Matthew Gutiérrez, abruptly announced in April that he was rescinding his acceptance of the job, sending the Madison Metropolitan School District scrambling for a leader in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Gutiérrez, a 39-year-old Texas educator, said he felt obligated to see the community of Seguin, Texas, where he currently serves as superintendent, through the pandemic.
But that was not the only reason for Gutiérrez’s sudden departure.
The search to replace former superintendent Jennifer Cheathem, who served in the post for six years, came at a time of increased attention to racial and socioeconomic gaps in student achievement and the low numbers of non-white faculty and administrators in the system. The outbreak of the COVID epidemic and transition to remote learning only added to the urgency of these issues.
Gutiérrez’s appointment had elicited significant outcry from some of Madison’s most prominent Black leaders. Of the three initial finalists for the superintendent job, Gutiérrez was the only non-Black candidate.
Shortly after Gutiérrez’s hiring, twelve Black leaders, many of whom had been part of an MMSD-organized advisory board on the selection of the new superintendent, published an op-ed on local news site Madison365 regarding the school district’s decision. They questioned Gutiérrez’s understanding of Madison’s cultural and regional environment and ability to make adequate connections with the Black community, which currently stands as the most educationally underserved group in the city per the Race To Equity Report.
“There is a significant lack of confidence demonstrated by the Black community in his answers to our questions in the meeting held prior to his public meeting,” the op-ed stated. “His answers articulated a lack of familiarity with our issues and he showed neither an understanding nor past experience in addressing the widest Black/White achievement gap in the United States.”
The letter also expressed concerns about Gutiérrez’s experience and ability to manage the second-largest school district in Wisconsin, noting that Dr. Gutiérrez “did not discuss how he will effectively ‘scale up’ his management of a district that is 4 times his current district and one that is significantly more complex.”
Finally, leaders were most put off by Gutiérrez’s lack of understanding of the decreasing diversity of MMSD’s faculty.
“When specifically asked about workforce challenges, he again failed to provide any strategic examples of recruiting African Americans. As such, we were totally unimpressed,” the letter concluded.
According to the 2019 Wisconsin Policy Forum report A Teacher Who Looks Like Me, the percentage gap between the Black faculty population and Black student body has grown, rather than shrunk between 2009 and 2019. In 2009, the MMSD student body was composed of 49.5% students of color, while its teaching staff was made up of 10.2% teachers of color. By 2019, the gap had grown. In that year, 57.8% of students were non-white, in contrast with 13.6% of its teachers.
On July 10, after another, much shorter search, MMSD settled on UW-Madison alumnus and former associate principal of Madison Memorial High School Dr. Carlton Jenkins to be the district’s first Black superintendent. Since his time at Madison Memorial, Jenkinshas held high-ranking positions in school districts in New Hope, Minnesota; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Atlanta, Georgia. Madisonians, especially the signatories of the open letter to MMSD, were extremely relieved to have someone they saw as competent and experienced in the role.
“I’m just happy someone’s working,” said Marcus Allen, Rev. of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and co-author of the Madison365 op-ed. “First and foremost I’m a parent, and someone needs to be in that job, especially right now. And I’m very happy it's Mr. Jenkins.”
In his first press conference, Jenkins repeatedly referenced the strength of community as a means to get through the coming semester, which was slated to begin online.
“We will not put at risk any student, any staff or any parent, any community person coming into our schools,” Jenkins said.
Another signatory of the open letter, Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Ruben Anthony, echoed this sentiment, praising Jenkins’ eagerness to build trust within Madison’s Black community toward MMSD. Anthony said he has already spoken with Jenkins on multiple occasions and hopes to only bolster the strength of their relationship.
In a Sept. 15th meeting with Jenkins, Anthony had his enthusiasm and faith renewed in MMSD’s Future Ready referendum program, which plans to open a new elementary school in Madison’s south side and add significantly to high school budgets. Outside of online schooling, this is MMSD’s hallmark issue in 2020.
“I've listened to that referendum, proposed referendum, maybe like four times. And the way he explained it, and the enthusiasm that he had behind it, and how he was flashing it for the betterment of our kids. It was unbelievable. You know, and I was more convinced,” Anthony said.
That said, there is still much work to do. Though both Allen and Jenkins feel a tangible difference in the relationship between MMSD and Madison’s Black community, and seeing substantive improvement in the Black students’ performance is essential to them.
“I would have supported Gutiérrez if he was still here, even though I’m happy to have Carlton Jenkins, because something has got to change. This is all for the kids,” said Marcus Allen. “Black students in the same classrooms as their white peers are performing at sixty, seventy percent lower proficiency levels. That can’t keep going.”
Anthony, who voiced the same concerns about proficiency in schooling, thinks that even Allen’s hire can change the way students experience their education.
“I think for young brown and Black boys and girls to see a brilliant, well prepared Black leader who really cares about them — it’s just great,” Anthony said. “He's gonna be a great role model for many of these kids to kind of look up to and feel proud of. Already he's brought on another two deputies that are Black men with PhDs who are super intelligent, just like him.”
Anthony, like Allen, also emphasized that while this is a great first step in the direction of equitable schooling in Madison, it would be a years-long effort, and was only possible with the community support Jenkins outlined in his first speech as superintendent, especially given the possibility of remote education for the foreseeable future.
“He has [made, and I think will continue to make], a passionate appeal to say, ‘I need you, the NAACP, the Latin Chamber, 100 Black Men, I need you now more than ever before,’ particularly with kids actually being home and really having all the support that they might get in school.”