Every morning, Dr. Barbara Jenkins wakes up to a day filled with work.
Agenda meetings, board meetings, school visits, community activities — the list is seemingly never-ending and feels like the kind of schedule that would take an army to complete.
But there she is, a figure of poise and pure drive to do her job — and do it well.
It takes that kind of grit to oversee the ninth-largest school district in the country. She’s at the helm of an operation that educates 207,000 students across 191 schools. It’s an enormous task that comes with an equal amount of responsibility.
But it also comes with the potential of unparalleled satisfaction.
“I love teaching and learning — I’m always learning myself, so it’s just something that I’m drawn to,” Jenkins said. “It’s also because I believe in young people.
“I’m invigorated — I just feel energized when I visit schools and when I’m around our young people,” she said. “I so believe in their potential and in their future, and I want to be a part of making sure that they are successful.”
Jenkins’ love for all things teaching has always had a strong presence in her life, even when she was a child.
While other children dreamed of becoming firefighters or astronauts, as a first-grader, Jenkins already had made up her mind on becoming a teacher, thanks to the inspiration that came in the form of one of her teachers.
“That was my first love,” Jenkins said. “I’ve never veered from wanting to be in (this) profession.”
After graduating from Winter Park High School, Jenkins enrolled at the University of Central Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and administration in 1983. She followed that with a master’s degree in administration and supervision in 1986 and, finally, her EdD.
After finishing her undergraduate degree and during her time working on her master’s, Jenkins started her first teaching job at Spring Lake and Conway elementaries from 1983 to 1987.
Over the next decade, Jenkins climbed the OCPS ladder — from her staff development resource teaching position at Lakemont and Killarney elementary schools to a role as senior director of elementary education from 1993 to 1998.
Also in 1998, Jenkins took her first major role helping to oversee a school system, but unlike her previous jobs, this one wasn’t in her own backyard.
For eight years Jenkins took over as the assistant superintendent for human resources for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, she juggled numerous tasks for a district system that included 14,000 staff members and 120,000 students.
It was a satisfying, challenging position — and one that Jenkins hadn’t planned to leave.
“I actually didn’t expect that I would come back to Orange County,” Jenkins said. “I got this phone call from Ron Blocker, who was superintendent at the time, and he said, ‘It’s time to come home — I need you to come be my chief of staff,’ so I agreed to come back here and then chief of staff later became deputy superintendent.”
During that time, Jenkins thought she was going to just take this role under Blocker and help as his deputy superintendent, but there was more to Blocker’s plan.
“What Ron Blocker didn’t tell me at the time was that he shortly thereafter announced a two-year notice of his retirement,” Jenkins said. “So during that period of time — the entire four years I was deputy — he gave me lots of opportunities and included me and let me have a lot of experiences. It made me a pretty strong candidate when the board decided to put out a search for a new superintendent in 2012.”
The rest, as Jenkins put it, “was history.”
VIEW FROM THE TOP
The job itself has been a rewarding adventure for Jenkins in more ways than one. Not only is her role as superintendent allowing her to continue her dream of helping oversee the education of local youth, but also it’s earning her and OCPS plenty of recognition in the process.
In 2014, under Jenkins’ leadership the district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which brought in $500,000 to go toward student scholarships from the Elie and Edythe Broad Foundation. Of everything Jenkins has accomplished as superintendent, she considers the Broad Prize to be one of the highlights.
The county also has received the Governor’s Sterling Award in 2014 and 2015, as well as the Sustained Excellence Award in 2017.
In the last year alone, Jenkins has earned herself two impressive honors — a presidential appointment as the director of the National Board of Education Sciences in January 2017 and the title of Florida Superintendent of the Year.
“I was in shock to be a finalist, because we have so many fine superintendents all across the nation and certainly in Florida as well, so I was honored to represent Florida superintendents,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t get the national superintendent of the year, but to be one of the four finalists, I was so honored and pleased for the state of Florida and any recognition that my peers and I could receive from that.
“Most importantly, that recognition is in honor of my board and my leadership team, and all the people who actually do the work here in Orange County — I didn’t earn that by myself,” she said.
With her family firmly nestled in the Orlando area — her husband, Harold, is a Realtor; her daughter, Hillary, works as an attorney at Holland & Knight; and her son, Harrison, is finishing his last year at UCF — Jenkins has no plans to leave her post any time soon.
“I get calls periodically about other opportunities and other possibilities for jobs in the education field, and I will tell you nothing has attracted me more than Central Florida and the tremendous work being done by our entire community,” Jenkins said. “While we have gotten some great accolades, but there is so much more work to be done here.”