Carlton Jenkins is up for the challenge

As the new superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, Carlton Jenkins’ career comes full circle.
Carlton Jenkins
Assuming the role of Madison Metropolitan School District’s superintendent is a return to Madison for Alabama-raised Carlton Jenkins, who worked as an associate principal at Madison Memorial High School in 1993.
Photo by John Ficenec

Two things happened when Carlton Jenkins first arrived on the campus of Mississippi Valley State University in 1987. One was immediate, the first day. He met a woman named Lisa.

“The first day I hit campus,” Jenkins says, “I told her I was going to marry her.”

Not long after, Jenkins — who came to Mississippi Valley to study prelaw and throw touchdown passes for the football team — attended a lecture by a professor named Dr. Anthony Arrington.

“I’ll never forget it,” Jenkins says. “The way he commanded the audience, told a story and gave hope. I said, ‘Man, I want to be just like that someday.’ ”

Arrington was in education. “I switched from prelaw to education,” Jenkins says. In his college yearbook, Jenkins offered a prediction: One day he would be the superintendent of a large school system.

He proved a first-rate forecaster. This past summer, Jenkins accepted the position of superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, and he and Lisa — yes, he married her — prepared to move from suburban Minneapolis, where Jenkins had been a superintendent for the previous five years.

The new job brings considerable challenges. Racial disparities in achievement continue to bedevil Madison’s schools. The pandemic has changed the dynamics of teaching and learning — for how long is uncertain.

Indeed, he seems to relish the challenge. The goal of equity in education might be allied to the social justice uprising that followed the “public lynching” (Jenkins’ words) of George Floyd last spring.

“In this moment,” Jenkins says, “which I consider to be a movement, we have the momentum to realize the great dream for all. And when you say all, you must mean all. You can’t say because this kid is African American they won’t be able to get it. Or special ed, or a girl, or poor. All means all. It’s time for America, and Madison, to live up to who we say we are. We profess to being this great progressive city. Are we ready to live up to it?”

He pauses. “My only reason for being here is because if it can happen, it will happen in Madison.” Coming to Madison, as Jenkins notes, in a sense brings his career full circle. He was raised in Phenix City, Alabama, a place infamous for its past links to organized crime. “Al Capone hung out there,” Jenkins says.

The fact that his parents didn’t graduate from high school gave his family a reverence for education.

“As a family,” Jenkins says, “we probably received more perfect attendance marks than any kids in the country. Our parents didn’t believe in staying home from school.”

Carlton Jenkins

Photo by John Ficenec

He was an excellent athlete — in high school he participated in football, basketball and track — but looks back now with dismay at how literacy was rarely discussed because of the focus on which kids might “go pro” as athletes.

“The chances of you getting a doctorate degree,” Jenkins notes, “are much greater than you making it in professional sports.”

Jenkins was quarterback at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before transferring to Mississippi Valley.

He had several job offers after college. His mother advised him to leave the South, and Jenkins accepted a teaching position at Beloit Memorial High School, where he was soon offered an assistant principal role for summer school.

“I don’t know what they saw in me,” Jenkins says. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m a teacher.’ ”

But it sparked his interest in administration and led to earning his master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and, in 1993, an associate principal job at Madison Memorial High School.

Jenkins worked elsewhere — including Columbus, Ohio — and then in 2006 he returned to Beloit after administrators heard him give an address at a conference in New Orleans on how to better the Department of Education’s Adequate Yearly Progress metric. His executive director position made him responsible for all middle and high schools and the return to Wisconsin led to a doctorate from UW–Madison in 2009.

The Madison superintendent job aligns with Jenkins’ longstanding desire to “work in a diverse place and have an impact on all the children, including those who have historically been left behind. That’s been my mantra, along with finishing whatever I start, which I got from my parents.”

In his scant free time, Jenkins enjoys long car rides and listening to jazz and blues music. Their daughter Jasmine has given Jenkins and Lisa a grandson, Bronze, whom Jenkins says has “changed my life trajectory.”

There is a sense of time passing, much left to do. “I wake up every day with a sense of urgency,” he says. “I’m not talking about five or 10 years, I’m talking about now!”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"