Jennings offers hope for troubled school districts

JENNINGS, Mo. (AP) — It wasn’t long ago that the Jennings School District in north St. Louis County was on the verge of losing accreditation, following in the footsteps of neighboring Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts. Instead, Jennings is in the midst of a turnaround.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/18l7GPV ) reports that parents are more involved, attendance is up, test scores are rising and discipline problems are on the decline in Jennings.

Many credit superintendent Tiffany Anderson, who cut underperforming teachers and principals and hired about 30 new teachers. She also reduced central office staff to free up money for classrooms and extended the school year for students in an accelerated middle school program.

Anderson takes a very hands-on approach, even doing crossing guard duty to connect with parents.

“If you don’t have good relationships, you can’t move a school, and you certainly can’t move it quickly,” Anderson said.

Some say the reversal in Jennings offers hope for other struggling districts in the St. Louis region, proof that improvement is possible amid the trappings of poverty and broken neighborhoods.

Jennings is surrounded by the three lowest-performing school systems in the state. Riverview Gardens lost accreditation in 2007 and is run by a state-appointed board. Normandy was stripped of accreditation in 2012. The St. Louis city district regained provisional accreditation last year, but could lose it unless scores go up by next school year.

When district performance ratings were released in August, Jennings scored about 66 percent, just shy of the 70 percent needed to be in the range for full accreditation. Normandy scored 11 percent, Riverview Gardens 32 and St. Louis 24.

Still, Jennings remains a struggling district; 87 percent of its approximately 2,500 students live in poverty, based on the number that qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch. Most students are below grade level in main subject areas. Just 36 percent tested at or above grade level in math this past year, 31 percent in reading.

There are signs of hope. 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 declining 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 sees strong potential. She said music and art can help students achieve, and wants to increase 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.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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