School & District Management Leader Reflection

A Past Leader Reflects: Keeping the Focus on Students in Poverty

February 19, 2020 6 min read
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Tiffany Anderson, a member of the 2015 class of Leaders To Learn From, was honored while serving as superintendent in the Jennings, Mo., school district. In Jennings, a high-poverty district that borders Ferguson, Anderson deployed several community school strategies without using the label: a food pantry for students and families; washers and dryers at schools; and home visits.

Since 2016, Anderson has led the Topeka, Kan., district, where she’s applied some of the practices that led to a turnaround in Jennings and the district earning full state accreditation in 2015.

Her reflections have been edited and condensed.

The last five years have been filled with opportunities to impact low-income students, transform school communities on a larger scale, and lead school improvement by thinking outside of the traditional boxes within which educators often remain.

The districts I have led have become models of excellence for serving the whole child by using creative methods to build partnerships to meet students’ needs.

After the Leaders to Learn From recognition, I began networking with other educators who were seeking ways to improve their schools and districts. As a result, I became an adjunct faculty member for the nonprofit professional-development organization ASCD, and I travel annually across the country to teach other educators practical strategies to transform schools and districts.

Many high poverty districts struggle with creating effective ways to engage parents. The strategies used in Jennings focused on building relationships, understanding the hurdles families face, and targeting resources to remove those barriers.

By engaging families and increasing opportunities for children, starting at birth and continuing into postsecondary schools, Jennings steadily increased academic growth and went from meeting 57 percent of state academic standards to 81 percent in 2015, allowing the district to gain full accreditation for the first time in two decades.

How did we accomplish this?

• We built a system of effective relationships through expanded business partnerships, mentoring, parent-engagement programs, and home visits triggered after two absences.

• We recruited high-quality teachers who took a core content assessment before they were hired to ensure their knowledge was sufficient. They were then supported with rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum resources that were implemented with fidelity and closely monitored.

• I led data consultations with schools to review student academic progress, attendance, finance, and social-emotional data. This allowed us to collaborate on continuous improvement systems and remove barriers for our scholars.

After the Leaders to Learn From award, we expanded our parental engagement efforts in Jennings by creating a Parent Academy for expecting families. Parents in the program attended a series of parenting classes to learn skills to give their children a running start from birth.

Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, in Topeka, Kan., is a member of the 2015 class of Leaders To Learn From. She still wears her trademark white tennis shoes.

As Jennings improved, attendance rose past 90 percent, and the majority of students began graduating and entering postsecondary institutions.

Our work in Jennings attracted widespread attention, with national and international outlets visiting to write about our creative, whole-child approach to working with students in poverty. One focus of those articles was Hope House, a district-based home that opened in 2016 to give homeless and foster children a place to live and ensure they had stability while attending school.

I believe leaders are ambassadors of hope, and I named the district-owned shelter the Hope House as a reminder that our work must uplift, inspire, and give hope to the next generation of leaders.

In 2016, I was named one of 100 creative business leaders by FAST Company magazine and was invited to the walk the red carpet at the 2017 Oscars as part of PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ People with Purpose, which honored those who led with “humanity” and “purpose.” I was also honored locally with the Salute to Excellence for Women by the St. Louis Urban League and the Lifetime Achievement Award for volunteerism. And a 2016 documentary, “Don’t Count Me Out,” showcased the strategies that led to Jennings’ transformation.

There have been some significant life changes in the five years since the Leaders To Learn From award that have reinforced my belief in the importance of my life’s mission. In 2017, my beloved husband of 24 years, Dr. Stanley Anderson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who served the poor in Kansas City, passed away from cancer. He remains my inspiration and is my reminder of the urgency to make lasting change in the limited time we have. His legacy continues through my work with children and the underserved in Kansas.

I am still serving as a superintendent. In 2016, I became the first African-American woman to lead Topeka Public Schools in Topeka, Kan., where the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case outlawing school segregation originated. With nearly 14,000 students in 28 schools, Topeka’s enrollment is nearly five times Jennings’s. But there are also similarities: Like Jennings, a majority of Topeka’s students come from low-income families, with 77 percent of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

I’ve deployed several strategies in Topeka that are based on my work in Jennings. We’ve teamed up with a local food bank to open a mobile food pantry, which serves 400 families monthly, started a mentor program for seniors, funded the ACT for scholars, and now hold the ACT exam during the school day.

We’ve also opened the first school-based comprehensive healthcare clinic in the district at Topeka High School through a creative partnership with the University of Kansas Hospital, modeled on a similar school-based clinic in Jennings. We’ve added washers and dryers at 18 schools that parents can use in exchange for volunteering in the district.

Another start-up, Impact Avenues, targets homelessness by working with local businesses, housing corporations, the city of Topeka, and the Kansas Department of Children and Families to place homeless students and families in housing with support services. Approximately 400 of the district’s families do not have permanent housing.

We’re seeing early successes in Topeka

In 2019, the district eliminated the racial gap in graduation, and it received the National School Boards Association’s highest recognition, a Magna Award, for innovative parent engagement services in 2017 and for equity initiatives in 2018.

In 2017, an 11-episode A&E docu-series filmed in the district. “Undercover High” explored the public health issues teens face and how Topeka educators were working to help them.

Leading a district located in the state capital also provides an opportunity for me to interact regularly with legislators and discuss important issues that affect K-12 schools, including school funding. In 2019, I was appointed by the governor to the Board of Regents Post-Secondary Technical Authority, which makes recommendations on career-technical education funding in K-12 schools and other decisions that affect all of the state’s two-year and technical colleges. As most school districts partner with postsecondary institutions to offer concurrent college credit while students are still in high school, my role as the only K-12 superintendent and only African-American on the board allows me an even greater opportunity to make a difference for Topeka’s diverse students and those across the state as they transition into adulthood.

I remain committed to improving the economic conditions in our community by serving all students well, by unapologetically advocating for all students and families to have equitable access a quality education, regardless of their ZIP code.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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