In just three years, Tiffany Anderson has helped turn around one of lowest performing school districts in Missouri.
In 2010, failing test scores and low attendance rates put Jennings School District on the verge of losing its accreditation and at risk for being taken over by the state. Then, in 2012, Anderson took over as superintendent. Now, test scores are up, parents are more involved and schools are offering a host of programs designed to serve the local community and motivate students.
This week Education Week named Anderson one of the nation’s 16 most innovative district leaders in its 2015 Leaders To Learn From report. Members of the education journal’s editorial staff decided who would make the list based on nominations from readers, state administrators, fellow journalists and education policy experts.
“Each year, our nominations reflect a thirst among educators for two things: a little positive recognition, and some proven models to follow,” the report says.
Since arriving in the district, which serves about 3,000 students, Anderson has spearheaded initiatives to make it easier for parents and community members to participate in kids’ educations. She believes that, in an area where over 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, changing schools can change entire neighborhoods.
The district serves many students who live in Ferguson, the city where black teenager Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in August 2014.
“If a parent says, ‘I can't volunteer [at school] because I have to wash clothes or go grocery shopping,' then let’s remove that barrier," Anderson told The Huffington Post.
Anderson had a washer and dryer installed in every school. Parents can do a load of laundry for free in exchange for an hour of volunteer work at the school. Anderson also opened a food pantry in one of the district’s school buildings -- which provides community members with over 8,000 pounds of food a month -- and gives out dinners and groceries at Parent Teacher Organization meetings.
“We have changed the community and really involved the community in schools in a unique way,” she said. “Consequently, it has improved achievement.”
Through a partnership with Washington University in St. Louis, the district opened a health clinic in January at Jennings Senior High School. Right now, the clinic provides health education, mental health counseling and medical services to students. In the near future, Anderson hopes to open the clinic to the entire community.
“I think our only barriers are our mindsets,” Anderson said.
The past year was a particularly challenging year for Jennings. After Brown's death, the district had to delay its first day of school. Months later, when it was announced that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, would not be indicted for the killing, classes at Jennings were canceled again in anticipation of rioting in the area.
Anderson saw a learning opportunity for the district's students. When they wanted to hold protests, the superintendent talked with them about what they hoped to accomplish. Students then met with local police officers, who have agreed to meet with students regularly to address their concerns about policing within the community.
“We just continue to use Ferguson as a little bit of a backdrop to a deeper conversation on equity and justice and race," Anderson said. "In our district we think that should be talked about in the classroom."
Despite the quick pace of change, local parents seem to be responding favorably to Anderson's leadership, said Kevin Horton, whose son is a fifth-grader in the district.
“I believe initially there was some pushback, because of change,” Horton told HuffPost. “But now we have proof that she’s taken us in the right direction."
“Her ideas are out of the box. She doesn’t think small. … She says we’re going to change this, and it changes,” Horton said. “I like to see action, and she has shown me so much action in the time she’s been here.”