In January, Jennings Superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Anderson, who is credited with turning around the district and helping it reach full accreditation, announced she was leaving to take the position of superintendent with Topeka Public Schools, effective July 1.
Before she leaves, Anderson sat down with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio education reporter Dale Singer to discuss her tenure with Jennings, current trends in education and reflect on what she’s achieved in St. Louis.
What does it mean to be a superintendent?
Anderson was joined by two Jennings students, Kelly Warren, a junior, and Jarrett Barrett-Elder, a sophomore, who attested to the changes they’ve seen in the district since Anderson took the helm of the district in July of 2012.
“Dr. Anderson has been family since the beginning,” Barrett-Elder said. “I was born and raised in Jennings. I couldn’t tell you who the first superintendent was. Ever since Dr. Anderson came, it has been a big turnaround.”
Warren said that, though she had been a straight-A student since before Dr. Anderson arrived, she felt a new motivation from interactions with the superintendent and her teachers. She said that teachers, her principal and parents just seem more invested in her learning now.
“I was in the school district before and it really was failing,” Warren said. “The curriculum wasn’t even on the level the students were on. They have more potential and nobody recognized their potential until Dr. Anderson came. It was like a family after that. Everyone was more about the students instead of just meeting a test goal. They were more like ‘Do you understand this?’ or do you just understand the test?”
Making school feel like home
The fear is that all this change for Jennings will go away as Anderson moves to Topeka to take on her new role and move closer to her family. Remarkably, only four years ago, the Jennings School District only had 57 percent of its students meeting state standards. Now, that number is up to 81 percent. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, Anderson said.
“We have a 93 percent graduation rate but I can’t wait until we see 100 percent,” she said.
In the past year, the high school attendance rate has moved past the 78 percent average to north of 80 percent. Anderson attributes these metrics to something more than number crunching.
“This idea that students want to be there, as Kelly said, it feels like home,” Anderson said. “We all have the ability to make schools feel like home. With people there that love them, care for them and will literally do anything make sure they are successful.”
Both Barrett-Elder and Warren remarked on a decrease in fighting and an increase on students coming to class since Anderson began at the school district.
“Jennings High School was interesting when I first started: there weren’t bulletin boards in the hallways. There was a trophy case with no glass in it,” Anderson said. “There was this acceptance of low expectations in some cases. There was frustration and a loss of hope. All we’ve done is say: we can collectively do this. It’s not just me doing this, it’s the teachers doing this and the community.”
Anderson’s keys to success
“Kids will work for you if they trust you, they won’t if they don’t. Adults are the same way. The key piece of understanding needs in any organization is getting to know the people, build relationship. Realign priorities to what you actually need. Instead of focusing on what adults needed, we had to focus on what students need.”
Recruiting and retaining quality teachers and implementing systems within which those teachers can work are also some of Anderson’s keys to success.
Another one of the techniques Anderson has implemented is unstructured space for conversation with student groups, parents, teachers, community organizations. She said that is when people will communicate their actual needs in order to be successful.
“People will let you know if you ask ‘what do you need to be successful, to feel supported?’” Anderson said. “They will let you know. The problem sometimes is the farther you are from the classroom, the less you know about what’s going on. You have a lot of folks far from the classroom making decisions about what happens in the classroom. So my goal is to be as close to the classroom and students, which is where the real work happens.
Anderson has hope that the attitude she has built in Jennings will continue long after she has moved on to Topeka, where she will be the first African American woman to be superintendent for the district.
“This momentum can continue,” Anderson said. “All schools can exceed and succeed at high levels if you give the support to students and staff alike. It has been an honor and pleasure to serve in my hometown of St. Louis. I look forward to seeing the continued great things in Jennings and starting such things in Topeka.”
Art McCoy succeeds Anderson as superintendent of the Jennings School District. You can find more background on him here.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.