Keeping the focus on the students
The Rev. Rontal Jenkins firmly believes that the key to Kemper County’s success is directly tied to its public school system.
And that is why, as president of the Kemper County School Board, he has been working hard to strengthen the public school system. It’s also one reason he is known to preside over meetings that are orderly and highly professional in tone.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes that is made in public education is that the focus gets taken off of doing what is best for children — for students,” he said. “Education becomes too political or it becomes about what adults want and need, instead of what’s best for children.”
Jenkins has a clear understanding of the role of the school board — something that comes in part from his continuing education efforts through the Mississippi School Boards Association. He has served on the school board since 2011.
“It’s an elected position but it shouldn’t be a political position,” Jenkins said, referring to the school board’s role. “As a school board, we set policy and we govern but we leave the day-to-day administration of the school system up to the superintendent. That’s how things are supposed to work and I think we do a very good job of understanding our role.”
Jenkins is a product of an Illinois public school system that was about 80 percent white and 20 percent black. He said that he has been shaped by those experiences and feels comfortable dealing with people from a variety of backgrounds.
“When black students and white students start kindergarten together, they learn how to get along and how to play together – how to interact and how to solve problems,” he said. “You lose that fear factor and understand that people really want the same things in life.”
Jenkins said he would like to see Kemper County’s schools attract more white students, allowing the schools to be more representative of the broader community. He said that improving the school district’s academic offerings, as well as extracurricular offerings, will help to make that happen in time.
“I would love to see our school system be successful,” he said. “This year, I would like to see them at a C or better. That is my goal. And then, we can build more from there.”
Jenkins said he is proud of the school board’s efforts to appoint a superintendent for the first time in the school district’s history. Previously, the school district always had an elected superintendent, as allowed under state law.
He said that hiring current superintendent Hilute Hudson was a monumental move that has helped the district to begin to address academic shortcomings. He said that the district also has been committed to keeping students in school as much as possible throughout the COVID 19 pandemic.
“We know that many of our students have parents who work multiple jobs,” he said. “So many of our students already had learning deficits. Then, their parents are not able to provide the same level of support at home that students can receive in some communities. The best place for most of our students to be when learning is at school and we have worked very hard to keep the schools open safely.”
Jenkins said he also is excited about the recent passage of a school bond. Construction is expected to start on a new elementary school in the coming year. The elementary school will be the first new facility built in the district in several decades, Jenkins said.
When Jenkins is not executing his school board duties, he can often be found working at his church, Lighthouse Apostolic United Pentecostal Church in DeKalb. The church was “planted” in 2015. The church has about 35 people who attend, including a number of children.
He and his wife have been married for almost 20 years. They often attend church conferences together, including conferences that are designed specifically for clergy who are starting new churches.
“It’s encouraging to get together with other people who have these experiences,” Jenkins said. “You can hear about how they have been successful and also about some of their struggles. It can be a very inspiring experience and it’s something we really enjoy doing together as husband and wife.”
Jenkins said he is optimistic about the future of Scooba. He said the community’s strengths include a low crime rate and the presence of a local community college that also focuses on workforce development.
“It’s friendly for the most part – a place where everyone knows everyone else,” he said. “It’s kind of in the country but in 30 or 35 minutes you can be in Meridian and have all that the city has to offer.”
He said that his biggest goal as school board president is to help to strengthen overall community buy-in in the public school system.
“I am talking about buy-in from the whole county,” he said. “You have a segment of the county that right now is not for the public schools. And they have an influential voice. But if we are able to get them to come over and see the good things that we are beginning to do – see what we are about and what we could offer working together – I think we can do it. I grew up in an area where everyone went to public schools – rich, poor, black or white, people mostly went to the public schools. There is no reason we can’t do that here. And when we do, then we will have more support.”
He credits the new superintendent with building a diverse team that can help to make that shift possible.
“There is an inclusive attitude,” he said. “I believe that we are making progress. People’s eyes are opening. Things are happening. They really are. In the next three years, we are going to see major changes. People are going to start noticing what is happening in Kemper County and it’s going to lead to great things.”