YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – A month ago, there were nearly 140 people from around the Valley, state and country interested in becoming the next chief executive officer for the Youngstown City Schools. On Thursday morning, the Academic Distress Commission picked the final candidate.
Incoming CEO Justin Jennings said his specialty is turning programs around.
“As I’m looking through at the situation, the job just seems to be the right fit.”
Right enough that members of the state Academic Distress Commission overseeing the district chose Jennings to succeed Krish Mohip, who is stepping down this summer after three years on the job.
Jennings, 44, brings 19 years of experience in the Michigan schools, working now as superintendent of the Muskegon District.
“I’ve been a special ed director, I’ve been assistant superintendent over curriculum, I’ve been a classroom teacher and administrator,” he said.
Jennings holds three master’s degrees and is working on his doctorate.
He served on the Michigan Principals Association and was chosen to sit on the Board of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
“Our mission is to always make sure our scholars learn, and student achievement and student learning is the most important thing,” Jennings said. “I think that talking to some of the people I talked to, that seems to be the case and I think in this role, it’s a different role than what people are used to in education and without having support, it will be difficult.”
He said the key to his success will be getting parents and families more involved in their children’s education.
“Our expectation is not for parents to be algebra teachers or teachers of math, but we want them to be able to come and support the scholars and support the school system.”
Jennings said he’s not looking to make sweeping changes right away, stressing he wants to work with the board of education and local unions to make improvements where they’re needed.
“When we make these tough decisions, I have to make sure that they’re able to speak to why we made those decisions,” he said. “I think that that’s something you’re going to see in me and that’s something you will see different.”
Commission Vice-Chair Nick Santucci said Jennings had some specific attributes they were looking for.
“Dr. Jennings really showed a passion for the students, an interest in collaboration and a willingness to do what is necessary to show academic improvement, and also that common theme of the betterment of the students. We were looking for a candidate that would be able to step into this role, and have a steady hand and move things in the right direction. We are looking forward to working with him to do just that.”
Brenda Kimble, president of the Youngstown Board of Education, believes Jennings was the most qualified of the three finalists. However, she also feels the commission didn’t do enough to find local candidates.
“One of the common threads they said when they had all those focus group meetings was that we had someone from Youngstown,” Kimble said. “They didn’t hear them when they said that so that I’m not satisfied with.”
Kimble has been a vocal critic of Mohip and the process used to put him in charge of the district.
The local chapter of the NAACP has been critical of the commission and some of its efforts in evaluating students and academic expectations. Santucci said they will continue to work with the NAACP and the community as a whole to understand concerns and address issues that impact student success.
“We will do what we did with Krish Mohip. We will work with whoever is in power to make education better for kids in Youngstown,” said NAACP President George Freeman, Jr.
Santucci said they plan to bring the NAACP “into the fold” as they move forward with strategic planning for the district.
“Community collaboration is essential. We are going to have to continue to bring the NAACP into the fold, and hear their concerns and the other community stakeholders who have a vested interest in bettering students’ performance, bringing them into the fold, getting their feedback and doing what’s best for the students,” he said.
Jennings still needs to work out a contract with the commission.
His first day is August 1 but he plans on spending the next few months transitioning into the new job.