Confronting Poverty's Challenges, a District Regains Academic Footing
- Expertise: Community Schools
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Jennings School District, Jennings, Mo.
About 75 people lined up outside Jennings Educational Training School, an alternative high school here, on a chilly day last fall, their hands stuffed into their pockets, hoods pulled to their foreheads, waiting for the food pantry to open.
In this St. Louis suburb of about 15,000 residents, nearly 44 percent of the community’s households earn less than $24,999 a year, according to U.S. Census data.
So when Tiffany Anderson, 42, became the superintendent of the local school district of about 3,000 students in April 2012, her first project was to tend to the most basic needs of students and their families. She teamed up with the St. Louis Area Food Bank to open a school-based food pantry for Jennings’ struggling families. More than 90 percent of the district’s students are eligible to receive federal free and reduced-price meals.
“There was a big need,” said Leon Hite III, the district’s safety and security coordinator, who runs the food pantry with the help of eight student volunteers and packs fresh vegetables, canned foods, and multigrain bread and pasta into cardboard cartons to distribute to 200 families every two weeks.
The pantry was just the first of many initiatives that Ms. Anderson launched over the past three years to engage the community while tackling obstacles students face outside of school that affect how they perform in the classroom.
She has installed washers and dryers in each of the district’s eight schools; set up a clothing boutique in one school through a collaboration with a local nonprofit that provides free coats, socks, undergarments, and other essential clothing to students; started home visits after a child misses two days of school; created parent classes; offered Saturday classes; started a student advisory council that allows student input on district policies; instituted meetings with the local police to discuss crime and collaborative efforts; offered dinners for students; and made a commitment that at least 30 percent of the district’s employees will be alumni and residents.
Last month, an unused high school classroom became a health clinic that will serve students in its first year of operation and expand to accommodate the community in later years.
The challenge of running a suburban district with many of the chronic problems of an urban system would have led some to turn in the other direction. But those challenges were the very reasons that Ms. Anderson was excited about Jennings.
The unrest and racial strife that followed the death last August of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in the bordering community of Ferguson, Mo., have strengthened her resolve to continue to confront the deep-seated racial divisions and economic and social inequities in the St. Louis region that were brought to the fore in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Perhaps influenced by her parents’ example—her father was a pastor, her mother a principal—Ms. Anderson sees her job as superintendent as one that helps to restore hope in communities that have lost theirs.
Lessons from the Leader
- Build Relationships: Significant academic improvement won’t occur in high-poverty communities without relationships in the classroom, in the district, and in the community.
- Rigorous Curriculum: An aligned, standards-based curriculum, with high expectations for students, is important.
- Great Teaching: Hire, train, and empower the best teachers. Make them integral to developing curriculum and provide resources to help them improve their craft.
“People often have a myth about what kids in poverty can do,” said Ms. Anderson, who started her career as a teacher in neighboring Riverview Gardens and still considers herself a teacher at heart. “It is unfortunate, and the only way to dispel that myth is to show that they can not only achieve beyond what many have thought was possible, but in a time frame that is much shorter than what many believe is possible.”
With high expectations and the right support, students in high-poverty districts can thrive, she said.
“Instead of kids having a running start, they are standing in the ditch, and you want them to do a high jump,” Ms. Anderson said of children who live in poverty. “They can do the high jump if you give them the right platform as a springboard.”
Martin J. Blank, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership and the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, said:
“This is a superintendent who looks at the reality in her children’s lives and says, ‘What do I have to do to make this better, what can I take off the plate of my teachers so they are not faced with hungry children or children who don’t have any additional learning experiences or a place to go on the weekend? How do I create a more wholesome overall environment for my young people in which they can learn?’ ”
When Ms. Anderson became superintendent in 2012, the district was facing a $1.8 million deficit in its $30 million budget, which followed years of shortfalls. Three years earlier, a state audit had publicly upbraided the district for unbridled spending and top-heavy management that it blamed for driving up costs. She got to work implementing a deficit-reduction plan the district had devised before her arrival and that relied heavily on attrition to achieve the savings. Expenditures that did not directly affect student learning were cut. Some jobs were restructured. Curriculum specialists’ positions were not filled, and instructional coaches, whose numbers were reduced, were reassigned to the classroom part time and now assist with curriculum development.
Solid Financial Footing
By December of that first year, the deficit had been eliminated. And last year, the district had a $500,000 surplus, said Michael O’Connell, the chief financial officer. With its fiscal affairs in order, Ms. Anderson turned her attention to the classroom and to obtaining full accreditation status in the eyes of the state department of education, which the district lost in 2008.
The superintendent hired teachers who had mastered their content areas; accelerated the curriculum; and created a specialized college-preparatory academy, where a select group of 150 students attend classes six days a week, 11 months a year, and will graduate with a high school diploma and associate degree at the same time. Collaborating with local colleges, the district increased the number of dual-credit classes it offered.
In the past two years, Jennings made steady academic progress, but it did not receive full accreditation last year despite gaining enough points—109.5 out of a possible 140 points under the Missouri School Improvement Program—to do so. Jennings was exemplary in some areas, gaining all 30 points for reaching graduation benchmarks. But it fell short in others, particularly in boosting achievement for student subgroups such as special education students. (The state changed the accreditation process and is now looking at multiple years of district data that demonstrate a continuous upward trend in improvement before making accreditation changes.)
Performance on state assessments also showed gaps. The percentage of Jennings students who are “proficient” in English/language arts in tested grades is below the state average; the same is true for math. In Algebra 2 and geometry, the percentage of Jennings’ students who meet proficient levels was higher than the state average, but only a small number of the district’s students took those tests.
Ms. Anderson knows there’s more work to be done. “We’ve achieved academic improvements in ways that they have not seen in many years, but we have not reached the goal of achieving at the highest possible levels within our state,” she said.
Jennings Mayor Benjamin Sutphin said that gaining full accreditation, at this point, is simply pro forma, and he is banking on Ms. Anderson to get the job done.
“She’s got the respect of the teachers, the principals, the students, and the people in the community—this lady is unbelievable,” said Mr. Sutphin, who meets with Ms. Anderson frequently. “I would put her up as a model anywhere in the country.”
Parents are also warming up to Ms. Anderson’s efforts to help students both in and out of the classroom. Janice Watkins, the mother of 4- and 8-year-old students, volunteers at the district about five hours a week. Since losing her job last spring, Ms. Watkins has also used the food pantry to make ends meet.
Ms. Watkins said she appreciates the academic rigor in the classroom and the open communication between the district and the community.
Ms. Anderson “lets us know what she expects, [and] she asks us what we expect,” Ms. Watkins said. “We actually see a face. She comes to our PTO meetings. I don’t recall superintendents coming to PTO meetings. Even the kids know who she is.”
Communication—and skillful negotiation—may explain the absence of significant pushback against Ms. Anderson’s proposals. The district was already shifting to a model that emphasized data-driven instruction and community engagement, and Ms. Anderson pushed those programs into high gear. But she sought community input before rolling out the initiatives, meeting with and listening to parents, police, local politicians, business owners, and the teachers’ union—the latter an unprecedented move, said Rose Mary Johnson, a member of the Jennings school board.
“People feel like there is actual, authentic conversation,” said Phillip C. Boyd, the assistant superintendent. “I think with many school districts, they see themselves as a total entity that just happens to be in a community, as opposed to being a stakeholder in the community. I think that’s the big difference.”
Michael McMurran, the president of the Jennings teachers’ union, said that while there’s been “quiet pushback” from some quarters, “people have looked at the results she has gotten—and you can’t argue with that.”
Ms. Anderson, dressed in dark suits and her trademark white tennis shoes and socks, is a constant presence in the school buildings and on the streets. The shoes come in handy when she takes up crossing-guard duty at busy intersections and during her daily visits to each school.
People often have a myth about what kids in poverty can do. It is unfortunate, and the only way to dispel that myth is to show that they can not only achieve beyond what many have thought was possible, but in a time frame that is much shorter than what many believe is possible.
At least three times a week, the superintendent leaves her home in Overland Park, Kan., at around 3 a.m. for the nearly four-hour, 270-mile drive to Jennings. On the other days, Ms. Anderson stays in St. Louis, where she teaches a course in personnel administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She arrives in the district early enough to pitch in on morning duties in the schools. From there, it’s a series of meetings with teachers, community members, police liaisons, parents, and school board members until she returns to the office around 5 p.m. to deal with administrative tasks.
The constant visibility is about building and strengthening relationships, Ms. Anderson said.
“No significant learning can really occur without a strong relationship—in a classroom, in a district, in a school,” she said.
Ms. Anderson is proud of the district’s progress in such a short period and stressed, repeatedly, that the improvements were the results of a great team working toward a common goal.
Even a work-in-progress can offer lessons to districts serving similar populations, said Ms. Anderson.
There are no barriers to achieving at the highest levels, she said, and schools have a responsibility to actively engage and empower the communities in which they are located.
“High-poverty environments have a tremendous degree of resiliency from their youth,” Ms. Anderson said. “I think that they have resiliency from staff as well, and if you build a process—and a foundation—that is sustainable, they will improve. I believe that, and have seen that occur every place that I have been.”