Florida superintendent of the year reflects on women in leadership

Orange County Public Schools head Barbara Jenkins is in a position disproportionately occupied by men

Orange County (FL) Public Schools Superintendent and state Superintendent of the Year Barbara Jenkins decided she wanted to be a teacher in first grade. What she didn’t know until much later was whether she wanted to be an administrator. That took longer. But now she is part of the small minority of women who make it to the top of their districts.

While more than three-quarters of teachers and central office administrators are women, a survey by the School Superintendents Association last summer found less than one-quarter of superintendents nationwide are women. For Jenkins, persevering to the top of the administrative ranks was a question of impact.

“I like having an impact on larger and larger groups of children,” Jenkins said.

That mindset goes back to her first mentor, who urged her to move from being a grade-level leader to a principal, taking advantage of an opportunity to make good things happen for more children.

In Orange County, where Jenkins has been superintendent since 2012, her reach extends to 203,240 students and nearly 24,000 employees. The district is the nation’s 10th largest. It’s also where Jenkins got her start. She spent 13 years in the district before moving to Charlotte, NC, for an assistant superintendent position, coming back to serve as chief of staff and then deputy superintendent before taking the top job.

In Charlotte, one of her signature contributions was an effort to improve equity in staffing. Under her leadership, the district created incentives to make sure some of the most qualified and experienced teachers taught in the neediest schools.

Jenkins counts among her proudest accomplishments in OCPS the creation of a comprehensive strategic plan, in collaboration with the school board, that could provide a solid foundation for sustainable progress even with changes in leadership. She also points to the establishment of a minority achievement office to focus on data-driven, research-based programs to boost outcomes among the district’s students of color, a digital learning project that is making print textbooks obsolete, and an effort to increase participation among students of color in Advanced Placement courses.

With Jenkins at the helm, OCPS has earned a number of awards, including the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education, which the district shared with Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools in 2014. Though for all of the district’s successes and recognitions, Jenkins says credit must go to an outstanding school board that “understands governance,” a cabinet that is “second to none” and a supportive community.

She also counts a supportive family that has helped her own professional growth. Being superintendent means regular evening and weekend commitments that keep her out of the house.

“Having a supportive spouse at home really makes a difference,” Jenkins said. “They just have to understand the demands of the job.”

During her first couple years as superintendent, Jenkins said yes to virtually every invitation sent her way by community organizations. She sat on a number of boards and established a presence in the community. That meant getting used to exhaustion, skipping workouts and spending less time with her family. But by year three, she was able to start sending cabinet members to community events in her place and develop more of a balance.

Still, as a mentor, Jenkins says some of the women she coaches who have children at home are anxious about the additional time constraints that the superintendent role requires.

That’s one thing that may keep women more broadly out of the superintendent’s office.

“I think there just has to be an added effort and support structures put in place so they can feel more confident about pursuing the role,” Jenkins said.

Another issue might be the exposure of the top job. Jenkins has seen some of her mentees shy away from the political and public exposure of the role. While the majority of school districts don’t have contentious battles, the ones that do are heavily publicized, and Jenkins said women leaders may be more prone to intimidation over what that could mean for them and their families.

In Jenkins’ case, the driving desire to impact ever-larger groups of children allowed no room for this intimidation. And the students she works with in Orange County keep her centered.

“They inspire me and give me hope,” Jenkins said. “They are so brilliant. When I see what the future holds in our community and what bright young people we have, I’m just inspired to remain in this work.”

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Filed Under: K12