Earth & Conservation

How One Woman Reinvented School To Combat Poverty

Dr. Tiffany Anderson used creative solutions to turn around a failing school district in a low-income town near St. Louis, Missouri.

Waking up at 2am for a four hour commute is just the beginning of Dr. Tiffany Anderson's intense work day. Once she arrives in Jennings, Missouri, Dr. Anderson performs more jobs in one day than most of us will do in a lifetime. From crossing guard, to food pantry worker, to substitute teacher, to hot cocoa server, she's there to support the students of Jennings every single school day.

As the superintendent of the Jennings school district, Dr. Anderson oversees eight schools with 3,000 students and dozens of teachers and staff members. Jennings borders Ferguson, MO and shares many of the same struggles. A quarter of its residents live below the poverty line and the community faces violence on a regular basis. Dr. Anderson told reporter Laura Ling that she typically attends funerals for students or family members of students once a month.

Four years ago, before Dr. Anderson became superintendent, the Jennings school district was close to losing its accreditation. They were only meeting 57% of the state of Missouri's standards, and many students dropped out before high school graduation.

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With a combination of grants, partnerships and a lot of hard work, Dr. Anderson was able to turn everything around. She balanced the district's budget, started a college preparatory program, reinstated arts education and started a number of need-based programs that have dramatically improved the academic success of Jennings students.

Dr. Anderson took a hard look at the factors that were prohibiting her students from doing well in school and found that one of the biggest contributors was a lack of food. She started a food pantry in Jennings that now provides 8,000 lbs of food per month to students and their families. Another big factor was access to healthcare. Every Jennings school now has 2-3 mental health workers as well as a pediatrician provided by a partnership with the University of Washington.

There are even laundry rooms that families of students can use for free in exchange for one hour of time volunteering at their child's school. If there's a kid that doesn't have warm clothing in winter, Dr. Anderson will make sure he or she gets one. She tells her students, "If all you can do is make it to school, we'll take care of the rest."

Since Dr. Anderson implemented these changes four years ago, she's seen a drastic improvement among Jennings students. Jennings has been passing state benchmarks for two consecutive years now, and more importantly, students are coming to school regularly and are actually excited to be there.

Beyond helping the students of Jennings achieve their full potential, Dr. Anderson's goal through all of this has been to give them the education they need to change the world. She told Laura Ling, "I believe our role is to show people that there is a system of oppression and [for the students] to gain the greatest amount of education they can so that they have the power to make changes."

Dr. Anderson also said that she doesn't believe where you grow up must dictate the outcome of your life. "This work we've done in Jennings can happen anywhere in any sized district and in any community. Zip code should not determine the quality of education or health care and we will not allow for that to determine where kids end up."

She will soon have the opportunity to see if her work can be replicated in another community. Dr. Anderson is set to leave Jennings and move on to the Topeka school district, which has faced similar problems of poverty in recent years. The schools in Topeka stand to greatly benefit from the same type of programs Dr. Anderson spearheaded in Jennings.

-- Molly Fosco