Battle Tested But Kid Friendly

by Jay P. Goldman

He was a street-tough kid growing up in Boston's rough-and-tumble Roxbury section where his youthful rebellion led to a few brushes with the law. Steve Jenkins certainly wasn't picked in anyone yearbook to be the most likely to succeed as a future school superintendent, the job he assumed two years ago in Winthrop, Mass., just outside Boston.

He's fond of relating how the running mates of his adolescence like to make light today of his professional climb through education's ranks. "My old buddies will be laughing about my accomplishments (saying) 'What's Jenkins doing now?'"

The 57-year-old credits his high school football coach at the all-boys public school he attended for funneling his wisecracking nature and unbridled energy in more positive directions. He landed as a recruit at University of Massachusetts, making him the only one of three siblings to leave behind the family's tenement housing for further education.

Jenkins figured to make a career out of his physical education major when he secured a series of teaching and coaching jobs in the Cambridge Public Schools before moving into an assistant principalship, where he realized he could shape the lives of so many more kids mentally, socially and emotionally.

"If I observe a kid struggling, I try to take him in under my wing. I tell 'em, 'You don't need to be me, but you need to do something different. What is your role going to be? What can I do to help?'" he says.

Getting youngsters to understand they can break out of the mold they find themselves in has been Jenkins' calling card ever since. On multiple occasions over the years, he's taken troubled kids into his own home, with his wife's blessing, for a few days or he's scheduled hiking and fishing outings far from their urban confines.

One of those youths he personally mentored was a young Jamaican immigrant, Patrick Ewing, who later would become one of the greats in professional basketball. Jenkins served as Ewing's assistant coach during three state-championship seasons and developed an especially close relationship with the player's mother. Even today Ewing, now retired, periodically contacts his former teacher for counsel on life's decisions, ever grateful for the earlier support.

Shaped by his own personal challenges in the inner city, Jenkins has involved himself in the lives of needy children at every rung of his career — as principal of Lawrence High School, as district administrator for student services in Somerville and now as the chief in Winthrop, a four-square-mile peninsula where 2,100 attend school.

Patricia Milano, who chairs Winthrop's school board, says she's been "intrigued by his capacity to understand the whole child, to understand a child doesn't just exist in a school framework but also in a community and family." She's seen the superintendent extend himself into youngsters' lives, offering one-on-one counseling on the sideline of a school sports event.

Jenkins, reluctant for so long to leave a student services position, says he chose the Winthrop schools for his entree into the superintendency because of its manageable size. His office sits 50 yards from one elementary school and a quarter-mile from the middle school. "When I'm frustrated, I can simply get up and go to school for a couple of hours," he says.

He's thrown himself into a community beset by fiscal difficulties in recent years by building trust and credibility with the town council, whose president holds one of the seven seats on Winthrop's school board. Last spring Jenkins accepted a role as Justice Brandeis in the high school drama club's presentation of "Annie" and, because of his ample size, dresses as Super Santa in Winthrop's July 4th parade.

"If you want productive members of society ... then we should spend time with young people and guide them in the right direction," Jenkins says, "and that means all kids."

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Winthrop, Mass.

Previously: administrator for student services, Somerville, Mass.

Age: 57

Greatest influence on career: William Stewart, a high school teacher and coach, inspired me to enter education. Vincent Nuccio, my mentor at Boston College, helped me attain my doctorate. Albert F. Argenziano, former superintendent in Somerville, Mass., gave me the opportunity to be a high school principal and guided me to my current superintendent's position.

Best professional day: In June 2006 my son informed me he was going to become a teacher. Although both his mother and I were educators, we had never pointed our oldest son in that direction, believing he would either enter the ministry or go to law school.

Books at bedside:Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson; Listening Leaders: The Ten Golden Rules to Listen, Lead and Succeed by Lyman K. Steil; The Measure of Our Success by Marian Wright Edelman; The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni; Crazy Bosses by Stanley Bing; and Leading with Soul by Lee G. Bolman

Biggest blooper: As the new principal of Lawrence High School, I was trying to find a way to connect with my new students. I contacted a former student athlete of mine, Patrick Ewing, who was the center for the N.Y. Knicks, to speak at our school. I promised the local sports announcer he could have an exclusive interview but didn't expect him to announce on air that Patrick was going to be at the school in the morning. Needless to say, I was very surprised when I arrived at school to find hundreds waiting to get a glimpse.

Key reason I'm an AASA member: The key reason I am an AASA member is the membership allows me the opportunity to stay abreast of current information, skills, techniques and trends in the field of education.