Kyrnn Peoples, a junior at Jennings Senior High School, knows that he is going to college because the school district has been planting that seed in him for a long time.
“Man, I feel like they’ve been talking about it ever since I’ve been at Jennings, which was since the first grade,” Peoples said. “Every day they talk about college.”
His older brother was part of the history-making senior class that just graduated in the spring, where 160 students received diplomas — a 97 percent graduation rate and the highest in St. Louis County.
Every one of those graduates has a plan in place for their next steps in life. Sixty percent of the graduating class is enrolled in college, and the rest found employment, which includes five students enlisting in the military.
A quarter of those students left high school with some college credits, and 120 students went through career-focused academies.
The high school is 98 percent African-American, and all students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Its neighboring districts have gone through state takeovers and loss of accreditation. However, Jennings School District became fully accredited in the 2015-16 school year. The high school scored a 91 on the state assessment the following year, which falls within the “accredited with distinction” category.
“The world sees that this is possible,” said Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy. “And not only is it possible, but it’s becoming the norm for our school district. And it’s possible for it to become the norm anywhere with the right elements in place.”
On September 23, Jennings Senior High School will receive the Monsanto School of Excellence Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. The proceeds from the event, held at the America’s Center, benefit the foundation, which distributed more than $700,000 in minority scholarships and grants last year.
One reason for the high school’s success in college and career placement is the variety of opportunities for students, said Principal Rhonda Key.
“We have something for every child and every interest,” Key said.
The high school offers free dual-enrollment and dual-credit courses. Students can earn a job certification through their partnership with the National Academy Foundation, which works with schools to establish career-oriented academy tracks for students. Students can participate in programs for pharmacy tech, certified nursing assistant and construction trades.
Through the school’s college prep program, students can double up on courses.
“By the time they’re juniors, they’ve completed most of their school credits and are attending colleges,” Key said.
The school has more than 20 corporate partnerships, which donate $100,000 or more and offer mentors and paid internships.
“We can promise every junior or senior a paid internship before graduation, as well scholarship support,” McCoy said.
Walking into the school’s forensics class on a Monday morning, one student was playing dead in the middle a crime scene and others students were busy sketching and writing down details about what they saw. Key pointed out that some kids had ties and red jackets, which denoted that they were college prep students.
“Some of those students were careers students, and some were special needs students,” Key said. “But when you walked into that classroom, students were engaged and you couldn’t tell the difference.”
Senior Taj Robinson, who hopes to study cross-species genetics in college, is a teaching assistant in the forensics class. He transferred to Jennings from Chaminade College Preparatory School, and he feels like the student-teacher relationships are really what make Jennings shine.
“When you have that connection with your teachers where you feel comfortable in class and you want to do the work and you have fun while doing work, I think that sets up the best type of environment for kids,” Robinson said.
Junior LaDaja Whitt said that her teachers are the reason why she pushes herself academically.
“When I think that I can’t do something, there is always someone there to say, ‘Yes, you can’ or ‘I have your back,’” she said.
Peoples also said that the personalities of the teachers and administrators are one of the school’s greatest attributes.
“They don’t get frustrated,” Peoples said. “They take the time to work with you, which helps build relationships with the teachers and helps us form bonds so we work well as a team.”
Aside from the career and academic opportunities, the high school also has a wealth of social services that students can tap into.
For the school’s most vulnerable students, there is the Jennings Hope House for teens who are homeless. The in-school SPOT Clinic, which is operated by Washington University, provides students with physicals and health needs. They also provide behavioral health services, not just for the students but for the entire family, Key said.
“So there is no excuse why you shouldn’t come to school,” Key said. “You can’t say you’re sick. Well, we have a doctor on site. Come to school.”
There are psychologists, social workers and counselors on hand to help families get through any situation they are going through, she said.
“We’ve taken away the excuses,” Key said. “We have students who never dreamed of going to college. But you know what? You can go, and you can go for free. That opportunity is for you.”
For these and many other reasons, Robinson said that Jennings isn’t just another high school.
He said, “This is where kids can grow and they can find a great place after high school and in high school.”
The 2017 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 23, 2017 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.