Updated at 11:33 a.m. with testimony at board meeting:
Riding the crest of improvement on the state’s annual evaluation, Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson sees full accreditation and further gains in the future for the north St. Louis County district.
And Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, whose district is now the only one in Missouri that is unaccredited, says his staff have laid the foundation for classroom success.
Both districts made presentations Tuesday to the Missouri Board of Education in Jefferson City. Anderson won praise from board President Peter Herschend for her leadership, and Vice President Mike Jones congratulated her on the progress that Jennings has made in a short period of time.
Spurgeon noted an increase in attendance by Riverview Gardens students and said that families begin paying more attention to making sure students show up at school when they perceive the value of the teaching and learning that is occurring.
In advance of the meeting, Anderson told St. Louis Public Radio that high expectations, extended hours and support services have helped Jennings move from the provisional accreditation range into full accreditation territory. Noting how the district has made sure it has counselors for every grade, Anderson said the goal is to guarantee success after high school.
“It’s never too early to prepare young people for college,” she said. “Really, the expectation is that we are preparing our young people for college and beyond, throughout their entire educational career.”
Since Anderson joined Jennings as superintendent in 2012, it has shown steady improvement in its state evaluations under the Missouri School Improvement Program. With a score of 70 percent of the points possible required to gain full accreditation, Jennings has moved from 57.1 percent in the year before she came to 65.7 percent in 2013 to 78.2 percent last year. Though that score was enough to give the district full accreditation, state school officials said they wanted to wait another year to make sure Jennings sustained its progress.
Anderson – who led a spirited rally at the start of the school year when the district’s preliminary evaluation numbers became available -- said she expects the momentum to continue, and she is studying other successful districts nationwide to get the best ideas she can find.
“It’s really about continuing to learn,” Anderson said. “While we know we’ve made some progress, we also know that our neighbors right here in north county are doing things.
“We’re teachers and educators, but we’re also students ourselves, learning about what works. We’re still trying to figure it out. I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet that can really help students be successful.”
In her presentation to the state board, Anderson planned to emphasize several points.
- Jennings has established partnerships with universities, agencies and other entities in the area to give its students the widest possible range of resources to succeed.
- The district is using data to track student progress and is using strict assessments to make sure that teachers are well-versed in their subject area.
- Jennings has shown particular improvement at the high school, a level where many districts see a drop in achievement scores compared with how well students perform in the lower grades.
Anderson noted that district schools are open on Saturday and late into weekday afternoons, to provide students with opportunities for academic help. At Jennings’ college prep academy, she noted, the school year doesn’t end until June 30.
As far as support services go, Anderson noted that schools now have health clinics and food pantries, to make sure students are in condition to do their best.
“I know those things don't sound like they're academic,” she said, “but they really do focus on supporting the whole child so that the academics can happen.”
Districts face challenges
Both districts have faced particular challenges this year, Anderson noted. At the start of the school year, classes were delayed because of the unrest following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Concern after a grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson also prompted suspension of classes right before Thanksgiving, and cold weather also has led to a lack of school because Jennings operates no buses and most students walk to school.
In Riverview Gardens, Spurgeon said that the attendance at schools most affected by unrest in Ferguson had slipped by 10-15 percent but stabilized in December.
"A real return to normalcy, so we can get some consistency with attending school, we'll continue to see those improvements," Spurgeon said.
Riverview Gardens saw a 16.8 percentage point improvement on its state report card for last year, most of which came in non-academic areas like attendance and graduation rates. The district remained 4.6 percentage points shy of the provisionally accredited range. Nevertheless, Spurgeon said the improvement has energized his staff.
"We're now beginning to focus on knowing these skills are what kids need, and these strategies lead to the best results," Spurgeon said.
The district has taken a back-to-basics approach to school improvement that relies heavily on:
- improving attendance
- ensuring students show their work to spot any gaps in knowledge
- developing individual learning strategies for students.
Despite out-of-school distractions, Spurgeon pointed to improved numbers on some benchmark exams taken at the end of the semester as reason for optimism.
"After our holiday break, every teacher I've talked with felt like the kids were energized and ready to go," he said.
Both Spurgeon and Anderson praised their staff for rallying around students following unprecedented unrest in Ferguson and surrounding areas.
"Our community knows the education of their children is the great equalizer," Spurgeon said.
Anderson said Jennings tried to respond in a constructive, teachable manner.
“When a lot of students were walking out of their schools,” she said, “we encouraged our students to not only stay in school and understand the importance of being educated, but to coordinate an effort to meet with police officials, with specific suggestions of things they wanted to have change.
“That would be more powerful than just walking out of school. We wanted their voice to be heard, but in an instructional way.”
Overall, she added, districts like Jennings need to do whatever they can to help a group of students that too often doesn’t get the assistance it needs.
“We still have a long way to go,” Anderson said. “We still struggle with how to best serve our population that's 90 percent free and reduced lunch, 98 percent minority. How to best serve a population that is underserved is a real struggle for us.”