Tiffany Anderson heads the Jennings School District close to Ferguson on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. She's a budget hawk, and she has to be to save money in her low-income district.
She stretches money in the most creative ways, including serving as one of the district's morning crossing guards.
The story of the Jennings School District is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Join the conversation on Twitter by using #SchoolMoney.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Many schools in the U.S. don't have the money they need to make ends meet. They are struggling. This month, the NPR Ed team is telling the stories of some of their teachers, parents, students and leaders. And today, a tireless superintendent in Missouri who's had to get creative and stretch every dollar, and when we say creative, we mean creative. St. Louis Public Radio's Tim Lloyd has the report.
TIFFANY ANDERSON: Oh, my goodness, I love it, running to get to school.
TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: Allow me to introduce you to Tiffany Anderson. She runs the Jennings School District and might be one of the few superintendents you'll ever meet who pulls - of all things - crosswalk duty every morning.
ANDERSON: The members of my staff, including myself, we have maybe 10 different roles that we juggle - crossing guard happens to be one of the ones that I have. It is a way to really maximize that budget, all so we can divert dollars in the classroom. If you'll excuse me for just a minute.
LLOYD: While I get out of the way, let me give you some quick facts on Jennings. It's located in North St. Louis County, right next door to Ferguson where racial tensions boiled over two years ago. Anderson has run the district for four years. Almost all of its 2,500 students are African-American. Poverty is a big issue. And one more thing - kids here have been doing a lot better lately in the classroom.
ANDERSON: The real important piece is building relationships, finding out what the needs are and then creatively coming up with other things that we're going to do in the district. It's 8 o'clock; you want to walk with me?
LLOYD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, let's do it.
After crosswalk duty, Anderson starts making the rounds. Wearing a business suit and tennis shoes, she hustles up stairs and power walks down halls and of course checks in on classrooms.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Good morning, Dr. Anderson.
ANDERSON: Oh, what are we working on today?
Every principal has to meet with me every month, and they have to justify how they spent every dollar.
LLOYD: And Anderson is always looking for ways to keep poverty from derailing student success. There's smaller stuff, like getting donated washers and dryers. Parents can do laundry in exchange for spending an hour in a classroom. And there's big stuff. Thanks to outside partnerships, the district has its own homeless shelter, health clinic and food pantry, things that many more affluent schools don't have to worry about. Linda Darling-Hammond studies school policy at Stanford University. She says it's a basic fact of life in low-income districts - you can't teach a child who's chronically hungry or cold.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: If kids are coming to school without the basic health and nutritional supports, you need to do that.
LLOYD: Darling-Hammond says once those basic needs are met, here's what should come next.
DARLING-HAMMOND: A marginal dollar spent to get more highly qualified teachers produces more gains in achievement than almost any other marginal use of that dollar.
LLOYD: That's a point not lost on Superintendent Tiffany Anderson. She cut back on her own central office staff and sought charitable donations so she could hire and pay teachers who specialize in helping students who struggle with subjects like math and reading.
ANDERSON: And so higher-end teacher salary with advanced degrees is actually more competitive than most districts.
LLOYD: So there are two big ideas here. First, use partnerships with social services to help meet students' basic needs. Second, put as much money as possible directly in the classrooms. And the approach is working. After struggling for decades, Jennings recently earned back its full accreditation from the state. Now there's a focus on helping students after graduation. Sixth-grader Ahjah Williams is in the district's new college prep academy and already has plans for law school.
AHJAH WILLIAMS: It gives me the courage to keep going and not give up. Like, I'm able to accomplish anything I put my mind to.
LLOYD: And when Ahjah gets to college, a district counselor will make sure she stays on track. Anderson says, look, it's ever easy to find money and time for things like that. But if you put the focus on students first, it gets a whole lot easier to set priorities.
ANDERSON: The power in this continuing, this system continuing, is really showing it's possible anywhere.
LLOYD: Anderson is out to prove that point next year when she becomes the first black woman to lead schools in Topeka, Kan. She says it's hard to leave Jennings, but the chance to replicate her success in the same district that sparked the Brown versus Board of Education case is an opportunity she couldn't pass up. For NPR News, I'm Tim Lloyd in St. Louis.
MCEVERS: To see what schools are spending where you live, go to npr.org/schoolmoney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.