What does it take to help schools succeed?
This is a question many in Hamilton County have been asking this year, and Tiffany Anderson was not short on answers as she talked to hundreds gathered Thursday night at Dalewood Middle School.
Anderson is the superintendent of the Jennings School District, a predominantly poor community just outside of St. Louis that has undergone a tremendous academic overhaul in the past four years. And Anderson credits the success to the community's involvement.
"Everybody can do something," Anderson declared from the auditorium stage.
Anderson was the fourth participant in the Chattanooga 2.0 speaker series. Chattanooga 2.0 is a local initiative launched in January aimed at improving the county's public schools and increasing work force development.
"As we move forward in working to give great opportunities for all residents," said school board member Karitsa Mosley, who represents Dalewood, "it's important for us to learn that the successes and failures of our community depends on us."
Anderson and several people from her school, including four students, began the presentation by discussing the obstacles poor students face in school and how some overcome those barriers.
"Exposure and access is everything," Anderson said. "How do you know what excellence looks like if you haven't gotten a chance to see it?"
The students shared their own experiences growing up in poverty. When asked if teachers have high expectations for students coming from their background, one student immediately answered, "No!"
"[Teachers] don't expect a lot out of us," he said.
He added that many teachers he had before Anderson joined the district knew they would get paid regardless of how they performed, and he felt like they didn't take his education seriously.
"My life is in your hands, and if you don't care, it's a slap in the face," he said of teachers.
Another student spoke of the importance relationships play inside the school, adding that having someone to trust at school is even more important for students with unstable home lives.
"Teachers are my motivation to keep going," he said.
Such relationships can be built by teachers visiting kids' parents in their homes or at basketball games. Or by police officers that come to the school and eat breakfast with students. Meanwhile, food boxes and laundry services are offered to families in need.
Community members can pitch in to help students pay for college visits. Meanwhile, schools within the Jennings district are staffed with counselors and doctors.
One junior talked about her job at a local bank, where she is responsible for developing her own curriculum and lesson plans and teaching the community about financial literacy. Anderson said this is just one of the ways businesses in the community invest in students by providing internships and mentors.
Anderson said improving schools — rural, suburban or urban — requires a focus on relationships, content and pedagogy. In her district, Anderson makes a point of hiring locals and boasts that 30 percent of her staff are parents or residents of Jennings.
She tells her teachers not to teach to the test or the textbook, Anderson said, while encouraging them to teach to the state's standards.
Kathy Foster, a 23-year veteran English teacher in the district, talked about how transparent the school system is with data.facebook
She said she talks openly with her students about how they are doing, and they know each week if they are mastering the material or falling behind and need some extra support. Teachers also have weekly meetings, she said, and talk about how their students are progressing, and data shows everyone how each teacher's class is performing.
"We don't keep secrets anymore," Foster said. "Everyone knows what's going on with student achievement."
Foster said the best thing districts can do to help ensure teachers don't get burned out is to support them and ask what they need to be successful.
"I promise it's not a whole lot," she said.
She added that schools shouldn't keep teachers who are not effective, saying it's just as much a disservice to them as to the students.
In Jennings, 93 percent of students graduate in four years, and 100 percent of those graduates are going on to post-secondary education or a job, Anderson said. And the school system doesn't stop supporting them once they graduate. A counselor follows graduates and helps them keep on track and find a career.
In Hamilton County, 65 percent of graduates of public schools fail to earn any post-secondary education after high school, according to a report compiled by Chattanooga 2.0.
Mosley asked how Anderson was able to find the funding for everything her district offers, noting how local officials don't always see the need to increase funding for schools.
Anderson said it goes back to relationships, and asking all different stakeholders to be involved, from businesses to the legislature to parents and local elected officials.
Meara Knowles attended Thursday night's talk not because she works for the school system or has kids, but because she thinks the community needs to be involved in supporting schools.
She said she was encouraged by everyone who spoke, and was glad Anderson did more than tell the story of one district's success.
"She gave us solutions," Knowles said. "And she made all of this progress with less resources than we have here in Chattanooga."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.