Andrew E. Jenkins, the District’s school superintendent, spent two nights this week inside a board room jammed with Hispanic parents who feared he was up to no good.
Repeatedly, Jenkins was asked to cancel his plans to reshape bilingual education in the city, with the crowd bursting into cheers after each speaker’s testimony. Children waved signs; some read, “Don’t Ruin My Future.” Jenkins watched in silence, twisting his shirt collar and tugging his tie.
For the first time in his five-month tenure, Jenkins has become the target of a public protest — a standoff with the city’s Hispanic community. How he resolves the predicament, school board members said this week, may be an early clue to how effective he’ll be as leader of the District’s 175 public schools.
“This is probably going to be his first major test,” said board member R. David Hall (Ward 2). “I think the board’s position is ‘We hired you as quarterback, here’s a time to call your play.’ “
Jenkins, appointed in June to lead the 88,000-student school system, is being asked to make one of two unappealing choices: concede to Hispanic community pressure and possibly damage his sweeping reorganization plans, or dismiss the pleas and risk offending hundreds of Hispanic parents, whose leaders say the Jenkins plan will diminish services to their children.
“This puts me in a very untenable position,” Jenkins said earlier this week. School officials have said that a decision or compromise on the controversy may be reached by early next week.
Jenkins, with unanimous support from the school board, has been planning to dismantle the Division of Bilingual Education and in its place establish three bilingual offices for elementary, junior high and senior high students. “My feeling is that bilingual education is being expanded and enhanced,” Jenkins said. Some board members privately say that Jenkins may not have adequately communicated his intent to the community.
Last week, Hispanic leaders held a community rally, had a special meeting with Jenkins and turned out in force for two school budget hearings where they implored the superintendent to change his mind.
“We had met with with Dr. Jenkins in August, and we were comfortable with his reassurance that bilingual education was being improved,” said Beatriz Otero, a Hispanic community activist who is spokeswoman for the protesters. “But as we received information from the inside, we realized that that wasn’t the case.”
Now Jenkins has been asked to postpone any bilingual moves until a task force he established last month submits a new plan for educating non-English-speaking children — the school system’s fastest-growing population.
Some board members worry that if Jenkins complies with the protesters, other school constituencies will demand similar treatment and thus sink Jenkins’ reorganization effort.
In August, Jenkins announced plans to restructure the entire school system, reducing the power of the central administration and handing more authority to principals. “If Dr. Jenkins caves in,” said board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), “he will have already lost the war on reorganization.”
Ironically, the Hispanic community protest emerges as school officials complete their next budget — one that board sources say contains about $ 1 million more for bilingual programs. A discussion of bilingual issues also was planned for a board committee meeting two weeks ago, but no bilingual officials or Hispanic community members showed up.
As a result, board members are expressing concern that some of the sudden outcry has been scripted by bilingual officials who fear their stature is being diminished.
Otero disputed that contention, saying that the school system has not precisely explained its plans. “What they [the board members] have to understand is that we in the Hispanic community are capable of acting without being told how to act,” Otero said.