A Christmas message to reformers: Fund what works. Hello, Bill Gates. Hello, Eli Broad. Hello, Walton Family. Hello, John Arnold. Hello, John Paulson. Hello, hedge fund managers. Fund what works.

 

I read this story by Emma Brown in the Washington Post a few days ago. It is such a beautiful story that I decided it should be posted on Christmas Day.

 

Brown reports on the remarkable success of Superintendent Tiffany Anderson in Jennings, Missouri, a town that borders Ferguson and that like Ferguson, is mainly African American and poor. The district has only 3,000 students. What it provides is an exemplar of wrap-around services. Anderson even helps the graduates of her high school find jobs.

 

School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.

 

But the Jennings School District — serving about 3,000 students in a low-income, predominantly African American jurisdiction just north of St. Louis — does all of these things and more. When Superintendent Tiffany Anderson arrived here 3 1/2 years ago, she was determined to clear the barriers that so often keep poor kids from learning. And her approach has helped fuel a dramatic turnaround in Jennings, which has long been among the lowest-performing school districts in Missouri.

 

“Schools can do so much to really impact poverty,” Anderson said. “Some people think if you do all this other stuff, it takes away from focusing on instruction, when really it ensures that you can take kids further academically.”

 

Public education has long felt like a small and fruitless weapon against this town’s generational poverty. But that’s starting to change. 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.

 

Gwen McDile, a homeless 17-year-old in Jennings, missed so much school this fall — nearly one day in three — that it seemed she would be unlikely to graduate in June. But then she was invited to move into Hope House, a shelter the school system recently opened to give students like her a stable place to live.
She arrived a few days after Thanksgiving. The 3,000-square-foot house had a private bedroom for Gwen, who loves writing and poetry; a living room with a plush sofa she could sink into; and — perhaps most importantly — a full pantry.

 

She’s no longer hungry. She has been making it to class. She believes she will graduate on time.

 

“I’ve eaten more in the last two weeks than I’ve eaten in the last two years,” Gwen said on a recent afternoon, after arriving home from school and digging into a piece of caramel chocolate. “I’m truly blessed to be in the situation I’m in right now.”

 

There also is a new academic intensity in Jennings: Anderson has launched 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 restored music, dance and drama programs that had been cut, as they so often are in high-poverty schools, finding the money for those and other innovations by closing two half-empty schools, cutting expensive administrative positions and welcoming new grants and a tide of philanthropic contributions. The district was running a deficit of $2 million before Anderson arrived and balanced the budget….

Anderson, 43, has brought rapid change in a manner that is nearly the opposite of the slash-and-burn fierceness of reformers such as Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor who once fired a principal on television. Anderson instead uses a relentless positivity and sense of shared mission.

 

“Hello, Beautiful,” Anderson says, walking school corridors. “You’re awesome,” she says dozens of times each day.

 

“I appreciate you,” she says to the teacher working with a small group of students who are struggling in math, to the second-grader excitedly showing off his research project on dinosaurs, to the teenager who sang a solo in the holiday concert the night before….

 

Philanthropists are giving to Jennings, excited by the story that is unfolding here. The nonprofit foundation that Anderson set up to accept private donations has more than $80,000 in the bank to pay for the shelter, which can house up to 10 homeless and foster children, and for other efforts.

 

The shelter emerged from a 90-year-old dilapidated house with no roof. Anderson charged her senior administrative staff members with overseeing the renovations, and she said she gave them 30 days for work to be completed. Concept to reality in one month.

 

And they did it.

 

“We need to have the urgency for other people’s children that we have for our children, so we move at warp speed,” Anderson said. [Emphasis added.]

 

Reformers, please remember that one line:

 

“We need to have the urgency for other people’s children that we have for our children.” We must be sure that they are well-fed, loved, cared for, treated with kindness, regularly checked by a doctor, and given the security of knowing that they have a future. 

 

That is my Christmas message to reformers: Treat all children as if they were your own.