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Breaking the cycle of poverty

How new systems of success in school districts can dispel myths about possibilities in urban schools

Schools are the center of the community and when schools are transformed in positive ways, communities are transformed. The continued rise of poverty is not surprising when policies and practices that could contribute to eliminating poverty are not addressed well. The foundation of systematic oppression is rooted in practices that contribute to a system becoming self-perpetuating because the conditions are institutionalized and habits are formed that are not interrupted. However, if habits were changed and practices that previously contributed to maintaining impoverished communities were replaced with practices that removed barriers instead of creating them, many more schools nationally would be transformed. This would ultimately give an opportunity for a new system to be created.

By creating new systems of success in school districts, we can begin to break the cycle of oppression and poverty. Jennings School District remains a work in progress, but the strides that have been made dispel myths about possibilities in urban schools. Recently, my husband and I attended a Disney movie that described the enforcement of systematic oppression so simply. The main movie character in the film Tomorrowland described the act of feeding two wolves, one was light and hope and the other was hopelessness and despair. Too often we feed despair and hopelessness and we give rise to the conditions creating hope and despair. The question in the movie was – which wolf are you going to feed?

When I began as superintendent in Jennings in 2012, we choose to feed hope and light resulting in an entire community working together to improve the conditions that give rise to hope and light. The purpose of this written piece is to share the Jennings experience so that we contribute to the conditions being replicated in other places as we give energy to light and hope for all. Schools are the center of the community and can transform outcomes impacting the whole community. As the wife of one of the decreasing number of OBGYNs who still accepts medicaid and the parent of an amazing daughter that is majoring in public health at Saint Louis University, I often see the clear correlation between the investment in people and successful schools. The investment in teachers contributes to their self efficacy and ultimately their positive outlook for students for the future. The impact of the investment in mental, physical and social public health care for families in high poverty schools has a direct impact on parental school involvement and student performance. Health care for the poor is too often the emergency room and if schools are going to improve, they must invest fully in all aspects that contribute to the whole child and family developing. Figure 1 below depicts the cycle of oppression that can work together to create systemic success or failure in communities as evidenced by poverty rates, unemployment, and graduation rates.

Schools interrupting the cycle of oppression and creating systems for success

In 2014, Jennings School District, which borders Ferguson, reached a 91% four year graduation rate, which is often unheard of in communities with 98% minority students and with over 80% eligible for free lunch. In 2015 in Jennings, 100% now receive free lunch under the new free lunch plan. In various ways, we give the message to our community that we expect that our students graduate prepared for the future and our practices are aligned to that message. It is imperative that district leaders set high standards and be unapologetic when working to reach those. New policies are also helpful but the practices and habits are most important. As an example of one practice, in Jennings, we reduced staffing expenses in central office and we have redirected funds to support in school discipline models to prevent students from being placed out of school for minor infractions because we believe in restorative discipline practices. Compared to 2011, more students remain in school and more receive mental health counseling when there are infractions that require for students to be removed from a classroom. That is an example of a change in mindsets and practices regardless of missing reform policies and funding to tackle that issue. We are still a work in progress and changing mindsets in an ongoing area, but our progress in this area has made a tremendous difference as we monitor and align our actions with beliefs.

Changes in school systems must come from within the system using the resources available. Waiting on politicians to change or fund policies can be a slow process and the urgency of improving systems of support for schools is critical. Additionally, politicians are so far removed from the schools, that well intended policies often adversely impact high poverty schools. Therefore, school leaders have to focus on internally creating new habits, changing mindsets and new practices become the outgrowth. In every school turnaround I have led, we examine habits first and work with a team to create new habits by changing mindsets. As examples, in 2012, we opened the school district’s food pantry, in 2013 we began employing 30% of staff as residents and alumni, and we expanded mental health services at every school. In 2014, we made a commitment to expand the work with local partners in placing every 2015 graduating student in a postsecondary institution or in a job. The school system has a direct impact on systematic oppression because the school has direct influence over the outcomes for youth within the community it serves. Since 2012, in Jennings, violent crime statistics are down while it has risen in surrounding communities and housing values in Jennings are up based on assessed valuation. The school system has directly impacted the health and well-being of the families in Jennings and in return, the social, mental and physical health of the community overall has improved. Feeding a system of positive support and possibilities can create a new system reflecting back hope, access and opportunity.

Schools who do not become directly involved in implementing restorative practices that positively contribute to the physical, mental and economic health of the entire community will not improve in sustainable ways at high levels.

The impact of schools on a community

I have been actively involved in eliminating achievement gaps in schools for 21 years with 18 of those years being in leadership and the majority of that time has been as a superintendent. As a native to St. Louis, I returned to work in Jennings School District to demonstrate that a complete turnaround model in a school district could impact and transform an entire community. The transformation did not require removing the majority of people serving the district in past years despite what most underperforming schools systems do when systems have new leaders. The majority of the staff members and the board in Jennings have remained in the district but, mindsets about Jennings have changed. Discussions are focused on high performing models of success and are filled with a focus on possibilities for a better future. Every board meeting is focused on an academic state standard, staff development focuses on standards rather and social justice training and central office staff is highly visible daily in schools. Jennings moved from meeting 57% of the state’s accreditation standards in 2012 to meeting 78% in 2014. Since the school district’s turnaround over the last 3 years, indicators of positive economic growth have been rising in Jennings, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri bordering Ferguson. Many have asked what changed in Jennings that resulted in so many improvements. My answer is that the school system changed resulting in outcomes changing for the entire community.

Community partnerships and social justice

The first training I have given leaders since my first year as a superintendent many years ago in Virginia is on dismantling racism. That training is given to leaders in every system I have led. Privileged individuals having an understanding of equity and the importance of increasing access and opportunity for the underserved is essential in changing mindsets. Reform begins with beliefs and the belief system to bring the unheard voices to the table to improve access and opportunities has to be unified and clear for all leaders. The approach in Jennings to the unrest is an example of the unified work in this area. During the Ferguson unrest, the Jennings educators focused on the message of showing the importance of education and they reinforced the importance of this message by staying in school and creating a list of demands they wanted addressed for the Jennings community. Students and administration marched to the police station, before school to meet with top police officials. In 2015 students presented three demands to police officials in that meeting. The demands were to increase minorities on the police force, increase community policing, and require body cameras. They agreed to all 3 demands. In 2015, the local police department’s minority recruitment expanded, community policing expanded, body camera purchasing began and the Teen Police Academy tripled in enrollment with Jennings teens making up the majority of the academy.

As another example, in Jennings we view the unemployment and housing problems as part of our responsibility to address and we began employing eligible alumni and residents as one strategy. We also began community service cleanup efforts and we are currently examining ways to repair homes in need through our schools. These efforts have had a direct impact on the economic improvements as new businesses are being built, housing values have improved and a greater number of residents are employed and are involved in the school system. Still another example of partnerships is the partnership with the St. Louis Food Bank that enables the district to provide 8,000 pounds of food to families monthly. Any family in need of groceries uses the school system as their source for free groceries. The food bank focuses on produce and vegetables that are often the first items removed from the diet in a high poverty household. The district also partners with agencies to create recreational facilities in the community to improve health outcomes. Unlike many high poverty districts, in Jennings, middle school students have recess because we believe physical activity and the promotion of physical health is vital to reducing obesity and chronic conditions in our community.

Since the community is limited in recreational facilities and has no local library, in 2013 the school system began opening on Saturdays until noon and during the week until 6 p.m. where we serve dinner at all schools. Likewise, in 2013 we redirected funds to opening a pool at the high school and building new outdoor recreational facilities at the high school which allows the community members to utilize those spaces. Jennings has become a model of what’s possible in a high poverty community that in 2015 served 100% free lunch and 98% African-American students.

Schools are the center of the community and as a result, schools have the power to transform the communities they serve. It is one reason why it’s imperative to have great schools in every neighborhood. Parents often move into areas because of the quality of the school system and they also move away due to the poor quality of the school system. There is a direct positive correlation between great schools and flourishing communities. In 2012, there were very few businesses in Jennings, the prior years reflected deficit spending by the district, high crime rates, housing values were down and unemployment was up. In 2015, multiple businesses are being built, housing values based on assessed valuation have increased, and crime rates compared to 4 years ago have decreased dramatically. Schools are the center of any community it serves and when schools improve, communities improve. Public schools are the primary institutions offering a free public education to everyone in the community. Therefore, any individual truly interested in improving their community must contribute to improving their local public school district.

The achievement gap is an economic gap

The achievement gap contributes to an economic gap that will adversely impact the forecast for the future if it continues to widen at the current rates. Therefore, the achievement gap is a problem that everyone must seriously contribute to fixing. Simply put, the illiterate student that does not successfully graduate and get a job will become the adult that contributes to the rising poverty and they are much more likely to contribute to the statistic of crime, incarceration and they perpetuate the cycle of generational poverty. According to research by DeNavas–Walt in their research on income, poverty and health insurance, 22% of children in our nation, which represents 16 million children, live in poverty. Since children only make up less than a quarter of the United States population, it seems impossible that children make up a third of the impoverished population in the U.S. according to research completed by Denavas-Walt and the U.S. Census.

The concentration of poverty has grown primarily in minority communities in the west and south and poor performing schools have also increased in both areas at staggering rates. When schools fail, communities also fail. In the 2010 research from Baker, Sciarra and Fairre from Rutgers University and The Education Law Center, they reported that the concentration of student poverty in rural and urban areas is contributed in part to the economic decline in those areas. The investment in communities through schools is vital as the poverty rate is addressed in communities. The 1964 declaration of the war on poverty that showed an initial decline in the number of families in poverty has not focused on the main area that has the power to truly change outcomes, which is education. As low skilled jobs that previously supported middle class households 50 years ago, become minimum wage jobs, the working poor has increased and affordability of postsecondary school decreases. As the income gap rises the opportunity gap also rises. Interestingly, in 1964 although President Johnson focused on investments in early childhood programs like head start and on stabilizing families, currently those same programs are often reduced by states. As a result many urban districts don’t have quality early childhood care and preschools or parents as teachers programs are cut. While Missouri has funded many priorities this year, the continued federal funding gaps adversely impact high poverty schools overall. Currently, some federal grants provide funds to schools based on poor performance, and those who improved lose eligibility. It is our hope that behaviors and mindsets change in this regard. In Jennings, recognizing funds are limited and are low compared to needs, we redirected funds away from needs that we could temporarily eliminate to ensure we maintain a free full day preschool and kindergarten in all elementary schools, despite the cuts. Investments in schools are important and mindsets and practices are equally important.

According to the Southern Education Foundation, over 50% of the nation’s children are in poverty. The characteristics of a majority group may give us a forecast of the future. If the majority of children are in poverty, what does this mean for us as a nation? The achievement gap is an economic gap and schools must become transformational hubs used to change outcomes for our future. The fact that prisons are predicted based on the illiteracy rate in elementary schools is a clear indicator that we understand the correlation, but steps to change the outcome have not been successfully taken. In 1982 Ronald Edmonds, (a researcher on effective schools), stated, “We can, whenever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of importance to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact we haven’t so far.” Schools can improve if courageous committed adults commit to transforming mindsets, practices and systems of oppression. As Ronald Edmonds said, decades ago, “We can, whenever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of importance to us.”

Tiffany Anderson is superintendent of the Jennings School District, Jennings, MO. She is a 2015 National Education Week Leader to Learn From Recipient