For this salesman, school is the pitch
PATERSON, N.J. — Carey Jenkins is a salesman. He no longer works from a corner office or cruises his territory in a sleek company car, but he's a salesman nonetheless - and an extremely good one, he notes.
"You could wake me out of a deep sleep at 3 a.m. and stand me on my head blindfold, and I could convince a kid to defer gratification and go out and get an education," boasts Mr. Jenkins.
To watch Jenkins working his current territory -the halls of John F. Kennedy High School, a tough urban school in northern New Jersey -is to become a believer. He can't walk farther than a few steps without attracting a posse of teens, all hungry for a moment of his attention, and each quick to flash an eager grin as he somehow finds a way to identify every one as a particular favorite.
"This is my model, this is my superstar, this is my basketball player," he says of each in turn. But immediately on the heels of that moment of recognition comes the students' moment of reckoning. "Let me see your report card," he demands. "How are your grades, what are your plans for next year?"
For 20 years, Jenkins was a highly successful sales executive, working first for General Foods and then for Philip Morris. "And then one morning I suddenly woke up and said to myself, 'You need to help African-American and Latino kids, to teach them what you know about getting ahead,' " Jenkins says.
At that point he made a career move many would consider utter folly. He turned his back on the corporate world and walked into a new role as a high school English teacher at JFK, a school with a 90-percent minority population in a gritty, post-industrial town overshadowed by New York City.
Jenkins entered teaching through New Jersey's alternate-route program, which allows any college graduate who passes the state teacher's test to teach on a probationary basis.
He stayed in the classroom for 10 years, but recently left to work full time as the director of Operation Link-Up (OLU), a program he founded and now runs out of the school that teams up minority students with adult mentors and encourages them to go to college.
Jenkins is convinced that the critical need of minority children is self-confidence and guidance. He believes that most have the capacity to shine at a four-year college but never get there simply because no one encourages them to think in that direction or helps to point out the pathway.
OLU student Kisha Manning says, "In the inner city we don't always have someone like Mr. Johnson in our corner. People tell us we can't be that doctor, can't be that lawyer. He tells us we can do anything we want to do and that school is the way to do it."
Through OLU, Kisha was paired with an advertising executive from a nearby affluent suburb. Learning about her mentor's life and work, she says, has given her "an insider's view of a world I didn't know anything about."
Kisha plans to major in English and political science at a local four-year college next fall. She sits on the edge of her seat and bounces with excitement as she talks about her hopes of becoming a corporate attorney. But, she says, if Jenkins and her mentor "hadn't been in my corner, I don't think I would be doing this."
Jenkins learned firsthand about the power of the mentoring experience. He grew up in rural Mississippi, the sixth of nine children whose parents hadn't made it through grade school. "I tell the kids that I know about poverty because, believe me, I do," he says.
While a young boy in school, his principal and one of his teachers, a married couple, took an interest in Jenkins and occasionally invited him over for lunch, or to attend a college football game.
"I could see that they lived better than we did and I knew I wanted to live like that someday," he recalls. "I asked myself what I would have to do to make that happen and the answer seemed clear: Get an education."
On the strength of his mentors' example, Jenkins worked his way out of Mississippi, through college, and on into a successful sales career.
Some 700 students have now passed through Jenkins's program. But mentoring isn't the only service OLU provides. Much of Jenkins's workday -as "his kids" pour in and out of his office -consists of dispensing an ongoing stream of encouragement mixed with an obsessive interest in college admissions.
"Let me see that report card," he tells a junior who leans in his doorway. "Excellent, excellent, excellent," he tells him, eyes shining at the sight of a string of A's. "Now, what schools are you thinking about? We've got to start talking and looking. You're going somewhere, you know that? Oh, have we got plans for you."
One of the more tangible gifts Jenkins offers his students is the special relationship he's developed with a number of colleges. He's seen his students admitted to such prestigious schools as Syracuse University, Cornell, Boston College, Penn State, Notre Dame, and New York University. In a number of cases, both admissions and scholarships are gained through direct intervention by Jenkins.
Syracuse University has accepted almost 30 of Jenkins's students over the last decade and offered generous scholarships to many. Sometimes, the OLU kids had grades and test scores below the school's average for acceptance. But when Jenkins calls and lobbies for a student, the university takes it seriously.
"He gets to know these young people very well," says David Smith, dean of admissions and financial aid at Syracuse. "He knows their strengths, their weaknesses."
In addition, he spends a lot of time on the phone with the new college freshmen, continuing to persuade them that they are capable of all and need only to focus carefully and work hard.
When Jenkins guarantees his students can achieve, despite less-than-stellar high school records, he's almost always right, Mr. Smith says. Traditional admission criteria "don't do a very good job of measuring determination and inspiration," Smith says. "That's the orientation Carey brings to the subject."
Plus, he says with a laugh, "He's one of the most persuasive individuals I have ever met."
And also one of the most impressive, he adds. "He walked away from very successful business career to act on his belief in the importance of the educational process. It was truly a matter of putting his money -and his soul -where his mouth is."
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Carey Jenkins on good teaching
A good teacher has to be a good salesman. If you can't sell, you can't teach.""
"When a kid comes to me, I take what there is and move forward. Most other people start placing blame: the kid comes from the projects, comes from a deprived home, wasn't adequately prepared in elementary school. Once you start doing that, you're losing the battle. Instead you should ask, 'What can I do?'"
"An educator has to be a risk-taker. I stick my neck out every day with the way I talk to the kids. But you have to.
Our kids do well because I tell them they can do well. I tell them they can do anything they want to do. I say it over and over like a broken record. By the time they graduate they believe it. But you can't just say it once and then let it go."
"You've got to deal with all the problems in a child's life. You're not going to be successful in educating minority children unless you take a holistic approach."
"Caring is a big part of being a teacher. I'm tough as nails, but the kids know I respect them, that I love them, that I believe in them."