JENNINGS • Just two years ago, Sean Charleston didn’t understand the point of school. He was sometimes suspended. He earned D’s. He blew off homework.
But then he ended up in Karen Thompson’s biomedical science class that the 20-year veteran teacher had begun teaching at Jennings Senior High School. Sean loved the class and saw that Thompson cared about his future. Now, he is determined not just to graduate high school, but college.
“That’s the only way I’ll be successful,” said Sean, now a sophomore.
Sean’s transformation is happening on a larger scale throughout the Jennings School District.
The north St. Louis County school system — which once found itself on the brink of losing state accreditation — is climbing back toward academic respectability. Parents are showing up in greater numbers to open houses and parent meetings. Attendance is up. Discipline problems are down. Middle schoolers are visiting college campuses. Test scores are showing moderate gains.
Many credit the progress to Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent who wears tennis shoes with business suits and is not afraid to try new things. She’s gotten rid of more than two dozen teachers and principals who weren’t cutting it and hired about 30 new teachers. She has trimmed central office staff to free up money for classrooms, an extended year for students in an accelerated middle school program, and uniforms for students who need help buying them.
Most mornings and afternoons, Anderson can be found doing crossing guard duty in various parts of Jennings to connect with parents and the community. She checks in with shop owners and with neighborhood leaders. Whenever there’s a face she doesn’t know, she introduces herself.
“If you don’t have good relationships, you can’t move a school, and you certainly can’t move it quickly,” Anderson said.
Her approach appears to be working.
The apparent reversal of Jennings offers a possible road map out of the educational crisis taking place in the St. Louis region that has about 2,600 students in unaccredited districts boarding buses each morning in search of better schools.
More broadly, the pockets of success offer hope that school improvement is possible amid the trappings of poverty and broken neighborhoods that have become increasingly prevalent in parts of north St. Louis County.
The Jennings district is surrounded by the three lowest-performing school systems in the state.
To the north is Riverview Gardens, which lost accreditation in 2007 and is run by a state-appointed board. To the south is the Normandy school system — stripped of accreditation in 2012. And to the east is St. Louis Public Schools, which regained provisional accreditation last year, but could lose it unless scores for this year and next improve.
And yet, when district performance ratings were released last month, Jennings far outshone all three. It scored nearly 66 percent of total points possible — just a few points shy of the 70 percent needed to be in range of full accreditation. Normandy scored 11 percent, Riverview Gardens 32 and St. Louis 24.
To be sure, Jennings remains a struggling district. Eighty-seven percent of its approximately 2,500 students live in poverty, as indicated by the number who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. The vast majority of students are below grade level in main subject areas. Just 36 percent tested at or above grade level in math this past year. Thirty-one percent demonstrated grade-level proficiency in reading. Proficiency rates even fell in some grade levels at some schools.
But overall, student achievement is on an upward trend, which is why the district did so well on its state report card. The percentage of those who earned the lowest possible score on the Missouri Assessment Program is shrinking in several subjects.
“It’s really amazing,” said Maureen Clancy-May, area supervisor for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They’re certainly one we’re watching. While they may not have large numbers of students exceeding targets or on target, they have been instrumental in moving students out of the bottom achievement levels.”
Anderson — starting her second school year as superintendent — said the district is filled with potential. She says music and art can help students achieve. So she’s increasing performing arts at all schools. There’s a piano lab at the middle school. Clarinet classes in elementary schools. Formal dance instruction at the high school.
“I tell teachers we are dispelling a myth,” Anderson said. “We are dispelling a myth of what kids can’t do.”
WHITE TENNIS SHOES
Anderson moves at a fast pace. Nylons and tennis shoes are her uniform. She once compared her job to that of a physician who must constantly monitor critically ill patients. She keeps a pair of heels in the back of her SUV for regional superintendents’ meetings, but she can’t recall the last time she has attended one.
“I need to be here,” Anderson said.
She visits at least one of the district’s six buildings daily, observing classes, watching students. Once a month, she goes over achievement, attendance and discipline data with principals.
Anderson got her start as an elementary school teacher in the Riverview Gardens and Kirkwood school districts. She’s held administrative positions in St. Louis Public Schools and in Rockwood. She’s served as a superintendent in Virginia, and led a high-performing charter school in Kansas City.
Last year, Anderson took a look at Jennings’ budget.
“Where were we spending money? And what did that have to do with college readiness?”
The district needed so much, she said. Classrooms had inadequate resources. Hunger was an excuse for students not learning. Money was being spent in areas not directly tied to getting students to college or careers, she said.
So Anderson eliminated a half-dozen central office positions, including the public relations officer and chief information officer. Some administrators were given additional duties. The district applied for more grants.
As a result, Anderson had hundreds of thousands additional dollars for new textbooks and technology. This year, science labs are stocked with new equipment. Students who stay for after-school tutoring may eat dinner at every school building. The district has forged a partnership with the St. Louis Area Food Bank to operate a pantry at the alternative school on West Florissant Road, which now feeds hundreds of families.
“It removes the food issue from being an obstacle,” Anderson said.
Anderson acknowledged that declining revenue and growing needs have been a significant concern among area superintendents, particularly where plunging property values have resulted in declining revenue. But aligning the budget to the district’s goals has worked, she said.
“If every district does that, you will find you really do have the money. You do,” she said. “We are the smallest district in north St. Louis County. If I can find it and balance the budget? Every school can.”
This fall, a new College Prep Academy program began at Jennings Junior High. About 130 students were accepted based on grades and behavior. They have a longer day and extended year. The boys are required to wear ties on Monday. They go on an overnight field trip to the University of Missouri-Columbia, as well as visit other area colleges.
Melba Davis oversees the academy. She arrived at Jennings Junior High five years ago to find classrooms in disarray and students with little aspiration.
“College wasn’t on the vast majority of students’ minds,” she said.
The academy focuses on getting middle school students into high school one year ahead. At the high school, 54 students are taking college credit courses in math, science, English and Spanish — an expanded opportunity. The goal is to eventually help students earn an associate’s degree by the time they complete high school.
Behind the high school’s change is Dayle Burgdorf, who had been named Missouri’s assistant principal of the year in 2006 at University City High School.
Last fall, Burgdorf began at Jennings by telling high school students there would be no more fights. She had the main entrance repainted. She had stalls put up and graffiti removed from restrooms. She recognized that students were interested in medical careers and that they wanted this focus integrated more strongly in science classes.
Burgdorf also rallied behind the teachers. They needed more support and energy.
“I work really hard to remind them they’re not just here to teach,” she said. “They’re here to lead.”
Thompson said it’s only been recently that she has hit her stride as a teacher, after almost two decades.
“We always had the talented teachers, the talented students.” Thompson said. “We just needed someone to corral everyone and give us that vision. That has been the difference.”
‘THE KIDS ARE EXCITED’
Parents in Jennings are taking notice.
Tiawana Thompson was apprehensive when her daughter entered kindergarten at Woodland Elementary two years ago. But now she’s excited that children are being taught to play musical instruments. She’s happy with the new gifted program. And she would love to see her daughter eventually in the College Prep Academy.
“I’m seeing more parents at the PTO meetings and the open houses,” Thompson said. “The kids are excited, and they’re taking it home.”
It had been discouraging to watch Jennings decline, parents say. They had begun to question why their children weren’t learning. Former school board member David Green said he was optimistic when Anderson arrived.
“We saw a district headed in the wrong direction. We could have been a Normandy or a Riverview Gardens,” he said. “I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never seen this much excitement or this much accomplished.”
Sean Charleston, the student from Thomson’s biomedical class, said he’s now waking up at dawn some days to study.
“A ‘D’ is a passing grade,” he said. “I thought since I was just passing, that’s cool. But my grade point average, I’ve got to get that up. Colleges look at that.”
His aunt, Kim Kimpson, who has been raising him since he was 4, said teachers such as Thompson had “set him on the right track.”
She sees that kind of change across the high school.
“They got rid of the troublemakers or something,” she said. “Now it seems stable.”