We often hear about school districts who struggle with high poverty, low test scores and budget problems. But one district has faced all of these and achieved remarkable results.
In just over three years, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, who oversees the Jennings School District in Jennings, a small city just outside St. Louis, has led a dramatic turnaround in one of the worst-performing systems in Missouri.
Anderson has embraced a holistic approach to solving the problems of low-performing students by focusing on poverty above all else, and using the tools of the school district to alleviate the barriers poverty creates.
"We serve the whole child," Anderson tells NPR's Michel Martin. "The leverage point for me is the school system."
The school district of 3,000 students has taken unprecedented steps, like opening a food pantry to give away food, a shelter for homeless students and a health clinic, among other efforts.
"My purpose is to remove the challenges that poverty creates," she says. "You can not expect children to learn at a high level if they come in hungry and tired."
That unconventional approach has had big results. When Anderson took over in 2012, the school district was close to losing accreditation. Jennings had a score of 57 percent on state educational standards. A district loses accreditation if that score goes below 50 percent.
Two years later, that score was up to 78 percent, and in the past year rose again to 81 percent, Anderson says. She points to a 92 percent 4-year graduation rate, and a 100 percent college and career placement rate.
Anderson is quick to give credit to the entire community for the improvement. "No one person can do this," she says. "The staff, the teachers, the board... have worked together collectively to demonstrate that our kids can exceed at very high levels."
Anderson talks of "removing barriers" like the barrier of hunger. The district has a food pantry that gives out 8,000 pounds of food each month. Between 200 and 400 families are getting food from the schools, she says.
And healthcare. "If a child breaks an arm, come to school, we have a pediatrician there," Anderson says. Students who would otherwise have had to travel long distances to see a doctor can now stay in school.
Through a partnership with the Washington University in St. Louis, a clinic opened in Jennings Senior High School this year. In addition to medical care, the clinic offers "mental health counseling, case management and wellness education," according to the university.
The newest effort is Hope House, which opened in November. The school office building was vacant, and "I don't think schools should sit vacant," Anderson says, so they refurbished the house. The foster home now houses at least eight children, with foster parents from the community, according to the school district. One house resident, formerly homeless 17-year-old Gwen McDile, told The Washington Post that since she's moved in,"I've eaten more in the last two weeks than I've eaten in the last two years."
There's more: Washers and dryers in schools, free to use in exchange for one hour of volunteering. Free groceries at parent-teacher organization meetings. Parenting classes.
In addition to her efforts to remove barriers to students and families, Anderson wants teachers to think differently about how they approach problems in the classroom.
Anderson says training in dismantling racism is one of the first trainings for teachers in districts where she has worked. There's also equity training. She recently placed many teachers in poverty for a week in a simulation. And all staff in the school district will soon have training to deal with trauma and how to diffuse tense situations.
Part of the funding for these efforts comes from donations from Jennings residents and many local businesses. But for programs like these to continue, "we're going to have to have buy-in from a lot of people, inside and outside of Jennings," Anderson says.
The district still has a lot to improve upon. As the Post noted, "just 36 percent of the graduates in 2015 scored high enough on the ACT, SAT or similar tests to meet Missouri's definition of 'college and career ready.'"
But Anderson largely ruminates on the positive, of what can be done, rather than the roadblocks along the way.
In 2016, she's weighing the possibility of adding dental care to the services in schools, while continuing to grow and improve existing programs and academic performance.
"In Jennings we changed how we served people. We see ourselves in their shoes. What happens to them matters because what happens to them affects me," Anderson says. "That's a whole different way of thinking, and inspires people to do more."