Dr. Aaron Jennings commitment to social service and serving the community makes him a perfect fit in his position as the Chelsea Public School’s Equity, Diversity, and Excellence Officer.
“I remember elementary school with my mother and my nephew at the church, we were serving the unhoused at a soup kitchen,” said Jennings, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C.’s Eighth Ward. “That’s in my DNA and that is the tradition I was brought up in.”
Jennings is completing his first full year as the district’s equity officer, having arrived in Chelsea at the height of the pandemic in October of 2020.
Jenning’s journey over the past decade alone has taken him from St. Louis, where he earned his Masters of Social Work from Washington University and stayed to work through 2016, to Harvard, where he earned a Doctorate of Education Leadership.
Between Harvard and Chelsea, Jennings served as Vice President of Education and Impact for a national EdTech startup where he provided thought leadership and K12 technical expertise on chronic absenteeism.
“We know what happened in March of 2020, and I was let go and schools were closed,” said Jennings. During those early days of the pandemic, Jennings said he did some introspection and looked at some of the opportunities that were available to him.
“I realized I wanted to come back to the public service realm,” said Jennings. “It was great working for a for-profit company, but I’m a public servant and I’ve always served people. I’m a social worker.”
In Chelsea, Jennings said he saw an opportunity to put his best foot forward and serve a tight-knit, growing community.
“It was kind of the perfect alignment of stars,” he said. “One of the things I really appreciate about Chelsea is that when we do the new hires, we have a student representatives. One of the students on my hiring committee, he just floored me; I was amazed by him and he was a ninth grader.
“It was because of him and the opportunity to work for (Superintendent of Schools) Dr. (Almi) Abeyta I said this is the type of service that I want, even though there was a pandemic, I was willing to take this risk and to move up.”
Jennings said that when he first came to Chelsea in October of 2020 that he would have to suspend any assumptions or beliefs he had about the district and the city.
“What was so special coming in was that Dr. Abeyta gave me two-and-a-half months to spend on a listening and learning tour,” said Jennings. “I was able to walk the community and interview over 100 people in the school district, city government, students, and families to get an insight into what they knew Chelsea to be, and that informed my work.”
One of the challenges the school district faces, and that Jennings and school leaders and staff have been working to address, is that Chelsea is a majority Latinx school system with a majority of white teachers.
“We have great educators in our school district who have been doing the work for many years,” said Jennings. “But there is a challenge sometimes with students who don’t see themselves, and there is some miscommunication as far as understanding.”
In the work Jennings and the district have done so far and will continue to do, he said there is one overarching principle.
“We want to ensure that our school district, through people, practices, and policies, is more equitable and inclusive,” said Jennings. “Our mission is to welcome and educate all.”
Jennings said the district can look to achieve that goal through its curriculum and through its practices. During the most recent school year, school leaders and staff received direct, hands-on equity and diversity training.
But the process is about more than a single year of training, Jennings added.
“This process of uncovering, this process of correcting, this process of really understanding your own biases is really going to take more than one year,” he said. “Part of what we are doing is that we are laying the plan out for professional development, we are laying the plan out for authentic engagement.”
In the schools with the students, some of this work can be seen in the recent establishment of the Black Students United and the Latinx Students United groups.
“In January, our Black students said they felt marginalized and overlooked because we are in a majority Latinx community, and me hearing that, that’s the birth of the Black Students United meeting,” said Jennings. “They are engaged, and they want to do more, and I am happy to do more with them, and the same is true for the Latinx students and Latinx Students Unite. We want all our students to know that we see you, we hear you, and we love you, and we want to respect your personhood.”