Superintendent Turns Around Underperforming Missouri District

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A superintendent has engineered the turnaround of the Jennings School District in Missouri, which had been among the lowest-performing districts in the state of Missouri for years, by increasing attendance and graduation rates while balancing a crippling budget deficit.

Superintendent Tiffany Anderson arrived in the district three and a half years ago determined to help turnaround the Jennings School District, which serves around 3,000 students in an area north of St. Louis that is low-income and predominantly African American.

“Schools can do so much to really impact poverty,” Anderson said. “Some people think if you do all this other stuff, it takes away from focusing on instruction, when really it ensures that you can take kids further academically.”

Since Anderson has arrived, academic achievement, attendance, and high school graduation rates have all increased in the district.  Just this month state officials announced that as a result of these successes, the district has reached full accreditation status for the first time in over ten years, writes Emma Brown for The Washington Post.

One initiative that helped to attain those achievements was the opening of Hope House, a shelter run by the school system for homeless students.  Gwen McDile is one such student who, until recently, was homeless and missing so many classes that it seemed she would not graduate.  After moving into the house, she began to make it to classes and now believes she will graduate on time, writes Rebecca Klein for The Huffington Post.

Anderson also oversaw the creation of Saturday school, a college preparatory program that runs using an accelerated curriculum for students beginning in the sixth grade.  The program promises to pay for college courses and allows students to obtain an associate’s degree before they even graduate high school.

Music, dance, and drama programs that had previously been cut were brought back through the closings of two half-empty schools, taking away costly administrative positions, and receiving new grants and contributions from philanthropists.  Before Anderson’s arrival, the district had a deficit of $2 million.  Now the budget is balanced.

There are about 15,000 people living in the town of Jennings, most of which are poor, black families, with 25% living below the poverty line.  According to 2014 Census Bureau data, the median household income in the town is $28,429.  Only 13% of residents age 25 or older hold bachelor’s degrees, which is just half of the state average.

However, in 2015, 92% of students in the town graduated on time, with 78% of those enrolling in the military or post-secondary training within six months of graduation.  Governor Jay Nixon invited Anderson and a student from the school to attend his state of the state address where he gave the town praises for its “big leaps forward.”

Still, most students in the district are not proficient in math or reading, as only 36% of 2015 graduates scored high enough on the ACT, SAT, or a similar test to be considered by the state to be “college and career ready.”

Academics in the district continue to improve as teachers give weekly assessments to measure student progress and principals meet with Anderson on a monthly basis to discuss whether their schools are continuing on the right track.