Using Accreditation to Boost High-Poverty Schools
School Administrator, August 2020

During her tenure as superintendent in Jennings, Mo., Tiffany Anderson used accreditation to begin continuous improvement in her high-poverty schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOPEKA PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNIFIED DISTRICT NO. 501
At the back-to-school celebration in Jennings, Mo., six years ago, then-superintendent Tiffany Anderson announced preliminary test scores that guaranteed the high-poverty suburban district would regain full state accreditation, a goal that had been elusive for years.

Anderson told the educators in a packed auditorium that the milestone had far-reaching implications beyond the school district in north St. Louis County and its 3,000 students, 96 percent of whom qualified for federally subsidized lunches. The success in Jennings, she announced, is “giving hope to every district that looks like us.”

That includes the high-poverty Topeka Unified School District 501 in Kansas, where Anderson was hired in 2016 to lead 30 schools and 14,000 students.

External Buy-in

The high-performance bar for effective schools is aided, she says, by an accreditation and/or continuous school improvement process that the community sees as a shared experience, with support for programs, policies and procedures that help students and families overcome barriers that prevent a deeper school engagement.

Poverty-fighting measures include working with local food banks to open onsite and mobile pantries; placing washers and dryers in schools, where the cost per load is one hour of community service; offering comprehensive, school-based health care; providing shelter for homeless and foster children; expanding after-school programming; and monthly data checks to track and review student progress, attendance, finances and social-emotional well-being.

“When you go to the doctor, you’re sitting on the bed, they take out a computer and pull up your health history,” Anderson says. “There’s no difference here. We pull up a child’s academic health history.”

None of this is possible, she explains, without strong community buy-in and partnerships with key players, including businesses, colleges and universities.

“Galvanizing the community around the success of students in the name of accreditation, or continuous improvement, or whatever you want to call that,” Anderson says, “it’s still at the end of the day collaborating with the community and getting them centered around the achievement of families, on growing adults.”

Holistic Treatment

Anderson points to a moral imperative in ensuring students in high-poverty districts are taught properly, tested soundly, treated in a holistic manner and prepared from an early age for college and career readiness — including for jobs in the school district itself.

“If we use poverty as a reason why we can’t meet state standards, and the nation has more than 50 percent of its public schools students on free lunch,” she says, “what are we saying is going to happen to those schools that face poverty conditions?”

Saying they can’t meet state standards is “scary,” Anderson adds. “The stronger statement is that we as school leaders who take on great challenges, we are responsible for using systems thinking to help create a sustainable model to move beyond the issues that poverty presents.”