Updated at 4:15 p.m. with information about discussion of Kansas City schools:
Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson wasn’t 100 percent sure that her schools had made enough progress to reach full accreditation, but she had a pretty good hunch.
So she went out anyway and had a banner made celebrating what she hoped would be the long-sought results. Then she got the word Monday night from state education officials: Jennings’ preliminary 2014 scores were high enough to be in the full accreditation category.
On Tuesday morning, at the district’s upbeat start-of-school convocation on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she shared the good news with her staff. Thanking them for their energy, caring, concern and passion for education, despite their students’ high level of poverty, she noted that if Jennings can make the progress it has, other struggling districts can do so as well.
“We are giving hope to every district that looks like us,” Anderson told the crowd.
Jennings lost full accreditation in 2008 and is one of 11 districts throughout Missouri that is provisionally accredited. Since Anderson took over as superintendent in 2012, regaining full accreditation has been a major goal.
The district made gains in the first year of the latest version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, which grades districts on a 140-point scale, but its 65.7 percent still fell short of achieving the 70 percent needed for full accreditation.
This year’s preliminary score gave it 76.1 percent, a small but comfortable cushion in the full accreditation range. Gains were registered in both categories that count student achievement as well as in a measure of college or job readiness of the district’s students. Attendance dropped a bit and the graduation rate remained at its top level.
The new numbers are not likely to mark a formal change in Jennings’ accreditation status. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said it would not recommend such adjustments until next year, the third year of scores from the new evaluation process.
DESE emphasized that stance on Tuesday, as well as the fact that the numbers released by Jennings are still preliminary. The department plans a formal release of final scores for all Missouri districts on Aug. 29. But it did announce late Tuesday that members of the state board of education would hold a conference call on Wednesday to discuss possible reclassificaiton of the Kansas City schools, which are currently unaccredited.
The Kansas City schools had sought an upgrade in their status based on a strong showing on its 2013 evaluation, but DESE said last month that it did not have enough data to make a decision. Now, a spokeswoman said, there is additional data so the department feels it can make a recommendation.
On Jennings, education commissioner Chris Nicastro said in a statement Tuesday:
“We are very pleased with the preliminary performance report in Jennings. It is clear that their leadership and staff have made a big difference for children in this high poverty district this year. We do want to caution that the performance reports are still preliminary and subject to changes.”
Beach balls and happiness
But that kind of caution wasn’t much in evidence during the Jennings convocation.
Anderson repeatedly thanked her staff for their passion in helping their students succeed. And she worked the crowd like a game show host, with a giant box bedecked with a balloons and a bright red ribbon sitting in front of the crowd.
She noted that test scores usually aren’t shared until teachers go back to their individual schools after the opening convocation, then added:
“Are you sure you want to do this now?”
Greeted with a roar of approval, Anderson unveiled the latest scores, then drew out of the box the big banner reading “Congratulations Jennings School District. Fully accredited by the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.”
Flanked by staff members wearing T-shirts reading “Destination” on the front and “Full Accreditation” on the back, she read an honor roll of teachers whose students scored well on the tests. Then the crowd, already as excited as a room without a roof, was treated to a rendition of “Happy” and batted beach balls around the room.
Finally, before they broke up, they took part in a call-and-response, answering the call of “I’m counting on you” with a rousing “COUNT ME IN.”
“Keep that in your mind,” Anderson told them, “because you want to keep the momentum up.”
Washers, dryers and tennis shoes
Keeping the momentum going is one of Anderson’s main jobs. In a district like hers, with a poverty rate of 90 percent or more, academic achievement isn’t always easy to maintain. But she is out to prove that Jennings not only is an exception but it can also be a model.
The big difference, she said in an interview after Tuesday’s session, is a combination of expecting the best and making sure students come to class ready to learn, as free as possible from other concerns.
“We have a special team in Jennings,” she said. “It has a lot to do with high expectations. At least two years, we’ve shown that achievement can increase at dramatic levels. Relationships, pedagogy, and an aligned standards-based curriculum are three of the main components.
“We expect our staff to do home visits…. We have a washer and dryer in every school so parents can wash their clothes while they volunteer. We approach education based on meeting the whole child’s needs. We have (mental-health) facilities in every school. We’re opening up a clinic in our high school this year. So those things indirectly relate to achievement. They show our parents we care as well as making sure that every need that child has is met before they ever walk through the classroom door.”
Anderson said she has had similar success in raising achievement levels at schools in Virginia and Kansas City, using a similar formula. But, she added, Tiffany Anderson isn’t the main ingredient.
“There’s really nothing special about me,” she said. “I think the team is more special. The energy we create is special. It absolutely can be replicated….
“That’s the power in what we’re doing. We want other people to see what we’re doing. We want to share the resources. We feel that we’re successful when we know that all of our students across St. Louis are achieving at high levels, whether they’re in Jennings or not.”
But her personal touch also plays a big role.
“You know, people laugh because I wear tennis shoes, but every day I’m in a school. This summer I was teaching second grade at one of our elementary schools. So that hands-on approach from every member of our team is critical.
“Positive energy I think just works miracles, no matter where you are. I love coming to work every day. I really do. I want everyone that I work with to love what they do and really have a passion, not only for teaching, but for making sure that the environment is positive. It’s infectious. When you have that, kids know it, and they come in ready to learn. We want kids running to get to school, they can’t wait to get to school.”