JENNINGS, Mo. — School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.
But the Jennings School District — serving about 3,000 students in a low-income, predominantly African-American jurisdiction just north of St. Louis — does all of these things and more. When Superintendent Tiffany Anderson arrived here 3 1/2 years ago, she was determined to clear the barriers that so often keep poor kids from learning. And her approach has helped fuel a dramatic turnaround in Jennings, which has long been among the lowest-performing school districts in Missouri.
“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.”
Public education has long felt like a small and fruitless weapon against this town’s generational poverty. But that’s starting to change. Academic achievement, attendance and high school graduation rates have improved since Anderson’s arrival, and, this month, state officials announced that as a result of the improvements, Jennings had reached full accreditation for the first time in more than a decade.
Gwen McDile, a homeless 17-year-old in Jennings, missed so much school this fall — nearly one day in three — that it seemed she would be unlikely to graduate in June. But then she was invited to move into Hope House, a shelter the school system recently opened to give students like her a stable place to live.
She arrived a few days after Thanksgiving. The 3,000-square-foot house had a private bedroom for Gwen, who loves writing and poetry; a living room with a plush sofa she could sink into; and — perhaps most importantly — a full pantry.
She’s no longer hungry. She has been making it to class. She believes she will graduate on time.
“I’ve eaten more in the last two weeks than I’ve eaten in the last two years,” Gwen said on a recent afternoon, after arriving home from school and digging into a piece of caramel chocolate. “I’m truly blessed to be in the situation I’m in right now.” Continue reading “Superintendent Tiffany Anderson Has Figured Out How to Make School Work for Low-Income Kids in Jennings, MO”