It makes sense that Jonathan Kozol would choose to open Savage Inequalities, his 1991 now-classic rabble-rousing tale of inequities in the American school district, in the town of East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River but a world apart from St. Louis. To this day, the towns ringing St. Louis—not just East St. Louis, but, more famously in recent years, Ferguson to the north, where Michael Brown was shot by a police officer just weeks after graduating from Normandy High School—have some of the poorest, most segregated, and lowest-performing schools in the country.
But, as Emma Brown reported in the Washington Post on Sunday night, a superwoman superintendent in one town in the deeply troubled area is taking extreme measures to change the educational outcomes—and in the process to break the cycle of generational poverty—of its students. Jennings, Missouri, a population-15,000 town just a 10-minute drive from Ferguson, had long had one of the worst school systems in the state—and then Superintendent Tiffany Anderson arrived on the scene. In the 3½ years since Anderson took over Jennings School District:
Academic achievement, attendance and high school graduation rates have improved since Anderson’s arrival, and, this month, state officials announced that as a result of the improvements, Jennings had reached full accreditation for the first time in more than a decade.
No less remarkably, despite the predominantly black district’s high poverty levels, last year “92 percent of high school students graduated on time, and 78 percent of those graduates had enrolled in the military or post-secondary training within six months of graduation.” Most still aren’t proficient in reading or math, but progress is progress.
One of the most revolutionary measures Anderson took to achieve these outcomes? Opening, with the help of social-services organizations and private philanthropists, Hope House, a homeless shelter to offer students a stable place to live so they could do their work, as well as a student-run food bank. Brown quotes one student as saying, “‘I’ve eaten more in the last two weeks than I’ve eaten in the last two years. … I’m truly blessed to be in the situation I’m in right now.’”
The school district under Anderson also offers a food bank, clothing, access to pediatricians and mental-health workers, and even washers and dryers for “families desperate to get clean.” There’s a ratcheted-up focus on academics, too, with “Saturday school, a college-prep program that offers an accelerated curriculum beginning in sixth grade, and a commitment to paying for college courses so students can earn an associate’s degree before they leave high school.” Anderson brought back music, art, and dance programs as well—and in the process managed to balance the school district’s budget.
“We need to have the urgency for other people’s children that we have for our children, so we move at warp speed,” Anderson told the Post.
All and all, an inspirational story for this holiday week. Let’s hope in the year to come it’s less of an anomalous one.