“You cannot expect children to learn at a high level if they come in hungry and tired,” says Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of the Jennings School District. It’s a perfectly obvious statement, really, but it’s not just an observation for Anderson. It’s a mission statement.
When she stepped into office three years ago, the small town of Jennings, just outside St. Louis, Missouri was one of the worst-performing systems in the state. Many of the 3,000 students live below the poverty line, and she made that her first priority. Her schools have opened a food pantry, a homeless shelter, and a health clinic, all to serve the community to which her students belong.
The food pantry gives out 8,000 pounds of food a month, feeding between 200 and 400 families, or more than ten percent of the entire student body. The clinic has a licensed pediatrician, reducing the need for expensive emergency care and medical travel. Jennings does not have a hospital of its own. The clinic also offers mental health counseling, a service that’s rarely available to students in poverty.
Anderson’s newest project, which opened in November 2015, is Hope House. Built in a disused school office building, Hope House is a group foster home. It now houses eight children, with foster parents from the community.
Anderson’s tackling of poverty is expansive. Along with the above, she’s made smaller services available. All the schools offer free laundry in exchange for volunteer hours, parenting courses, and grocery help. Training in addressing issues of race, poverty, trauma, and community violence is provided to all her teachers.
The results have been stunning. In 2012 when Anderson stepped up, the schools were scoring at 57% on state educational standards. The district could have been shut down entirely if that score had slipped much farther. Now, it is at 81%, and will likely rise another 4-6 points in the 2016-17 school year.
Anderson has more plans for Jennings. And her past record suggests that the community should let her have her head.