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Turning schools around, at high speeds

If securing resources for the neediest students is a puzzle, new Topeka, Kan., Superintendent Tiffany Anderson does more than fit the pieces together. She creates pieces where none exist.

Wendi C. Thomas
Tiffany Anderson (right) is the new superintendent of schools for Topeka, Kan. As a way to stay in touch with parents and staff, Anderson serves as a crossing guard at a different school each month.

Tiffany Anderson doesn’t have an appointment with the park ranger at the Brown vs. Board of Education national historic site.

That doesn't keep Dr. Anderson, Topeka’s new school superintendent, from hovering outside his office while the ranger talks to a woman who’d stopped by.

“I’m going to give her a few more minutes, then I’m going in,” says Anderson.

And she does. She deftly ushers the ranger’s guest out and does what she does best: Mine every contact on behalf of Topeka’s 14,000 students, most of whom come from low-income families.

She knew the ranger could put her in touch with the local black nurses' association, so she can connect them to high school seniors interested in health-care careers.

That will help Anderson reach just one of the goals she’s set for Topeka’s schools: To funnel all graduates directly into college or a career.

If securing resources for the neediest students is a puzzle, Anderson does more than fit the pieces together. She creates pieces where none exist.

This is the challenge of the modern-day public school superintendent and Anderson, who previously has turned around other districts, is making a name for herself as one of the best. She plays the role of lobbyist, cheerleader, visionary, coach, conductor, strategist, and fundraiser, all with the shrewdness of a politician.

“She epitomizes what we like to talk about – superintendents really being champions for children and public education,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“You have to have the community behind you – the business community, parents, people who don't have children in school,” he says. “You can’t be a lone ranger on this job and succeed.”

Kansas is among 31 states that spent less on public education in 2014 than they did in 2008, according to a 2015 survey by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

In February, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s education funding formula “creates intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities among the districts.”

No public schools, the high court said, would open for the 2016-17 school year unless the funding formula was fixed. And it was, during a special legislative session just weeks before Anderson arrived in Topeka.

“Kansas has underfunded schools for many years and it’s anticipated that there will be another budget cut because revenue in Kansas has been declining,” Anderson says.

“At the end of the day, I even see that as an opportunity,” she says. “There are never disappointments, there’re opportunities and challenges and if those weren’t there, why would they need you?

“The opportunity is to think creatively, despite the resources.”

Laundry and food pantries in schools

Anderson arrived in Topeka in July after four years as superintendent for the once-underperforming Jennings Schools district in Missouri. That 2,500-student district borders Ferguson, which erupted in 2014 after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen.

The challenges were many. The majority-black district faced a $1.8 million budget deficit after years of budget cuts. Its state accreditation was at risk; the district met just 57 percent of state standards. More than 90 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch.

To shore up finances, Anderson cut central office staff and saved money through attrition. To bring in support the district couldn’t afford on its own, she partnered with an area food bank to open a food pantry for the school district and with Washington University to open a health clinic.

Anderson noticed the lack of laundromats in poorer neighborhoods. Washers and dryers were installed in each school; in exchange for an hour of volunteer work, parents could do a load of laundry. And she pushed the district to renovate an abandoned building and turn it into a home for students in foster care.

When Anderson left, the district’s budget was in the black, state accreditation was firmly in place, and its schools met 81 percent of state standards.
“In Jennings, 100 percent of the students graduated and 100 percent were placed in post-secondary education,” Anderson says proudly.

“Even though we didn’t have a lot of resources, we had a lot of will and we had a lot of skill.” The distance from low-performing district to top-notch is far shorter in Topeka than in Jennings. Still, Topeka’s graduation rate, ACT, and achievement test scores lag behind the state average’s.

Here 40 percent of the students are white, 30 percent Hispanic, and 19 percent black. Three-quarters of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Anderson inherited a $205 million budget that doesn’t include enough money to meet the recommended 1-to-250 counselor-student ratio. Instead it’s 1-to-500.

That translates to the sort of class-based inequity Anderson and school board members want to root out. Schools in more affluent parts of town, where parents can pay for ACT prep classes, may offer college entrance exams several times a year. Other high schools offer the ACT only once a year and test prep classes are few or nonexistent.

“We’ve talked equity for many many years,” says longtime Topeka school board member Janel Johnson. “We often think equity means equality, but the understanding that equity means that those who need the most get what they need and then we can move forward with everybody.”

Anderson, Ms. Jackson says, doesn’t see equity as a buzzword but as a North Star, the center of every choice the district makes.

Topeka has earned its place in education history. The Brown in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was a black parent suing Topeka’s then-segregated system. The Supreme Court’s decision outlawed school segregation and the former Monroe Elementary School, built in 1926 for black students, serves as a museum and historical site.

Across the country, public schools, especially in the South, are steadily resegregating. In Topeka, Ms. Johnson and Anderson say, schools aren’t segregated as much by race as by class.

The district may not have enough counselors, but it does have a few dozen people who work in the central office, many of whom have little direct contact with students.

The entire central office staff were invited (think of it as an offer you couldn’t refuse) to mentor a high school senior and make sure he or she has a post-graduation plan.

“Never ever had we have such a large contingency of the (district office) staff to come over and be matched with the students,” says Beryl New, principal at Highland Park High. “That was her idea.”

High-speed hall monitor

For the first mentor meeting, Anderson arrives early at Highland Park, where the average ACT score is lower than the districtwide average. She’s new enough to go incognito in her signature outfit – a church-appropriate suit and skirt interrupted by white ankle socks and white tennis shoes.

She power-walks through the hallways, disappearing among the throngs of much taller teens. She spies two teens about to kiss and screeches to a stop.
Anderson introduces herself, asks what class they’re headed to, and puts her hand on the girl’s shoulder, as if to nudge her along.

The teens don’t budge. “Do that after school,” Anderson admonishes as she rushes on. “Appreciate you!”

A few steps later, a pair of girls pass Anderson. One drops an f-bomb. The superintendent turns on her heels with a response time that would impress Usain Bolt.

She walks beside the girl and introduces herself. The teen gasps and covers her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she says.

Point made, Anderson turns. “You too pretty for that,” she calls over her shoulder.

Shifting from hall monitor to superintendent, she enters the library, where about 20 central office staffers sit with their mentees.

At a table near the door, longtime district employee Pamela Johnson-Betts sits next to her mentee, 17-year-old LaMaidriana Darr. She wants to be a nurse, but she hasn’t taken the ACT yet.

“If you can’t do nursing, do you have a plan B?” Ms. Johnson-Betts asks gently, as you’d expect a former social worker like her to do. LaMaidriana offers that her brother is functionally deaf.

Maybe she’d like to work with disabled kids? Johnson-Betts suggests. “You’re a born caretaker. That’s what I’m seeing.”

The school offers a certified nurse’s assistant program in the spring, LaMaidriana says, but it costs $300. “If you do your part, I’m going to do my part,” promises Johnson-Betts, executive director of Topeka Public Schools Foundation.

A few tables away, Anderson sits with her 17-year-old mentee, Alexandria Williams. Even though Alexandria plays three sports, she hasn’t considered playing in college.

“I don’t know if I’m good enough,” Alexandria confides.

“Why would you say that?” Anderson asks. “It doesn’t hurt to get your name out there.”

There’s a cost to register for the NCCA’s athletic clearinghouse, Anderson says, “but we’ll take care of that.”

Alexandria mentions a classmate who wanted to play football, but didn’t have a way to get home after practice so he left the team.

Anderson sits up straight. This is an equity issue: Students without transportation are cut off from extracurricular activities that could help keep them in school and even get them a college scholarship.

“I have more homework,” Anderson says mostly to herself. “Things that need to be addressed and fixed.”

'Imagine every child had a home'

Anderson’s uncompromising commitment to equity is inspired by her children, now both in college. If it’s not good enough for them, it’s not good enough for her students.

Although she has an apartment within view of the State Capitol, Anderson makes the 60-minute drive from Overland Park to Topeka Monday through Friday. A New International Version of the Bible rests on the console between the front seats of her Lexus SUV.

The drive isn’t that long, she insists. “It’s just one sermon,” she says. Or two sermons, if she’s listening to televangelist Joel Osteen.

Her husband, whom she met at St. Louis University, is the only black ob-gyn at the Kansas City hospital where he works.

“So I tell him, 'Baby, you bring ‘em in and I got it from there,' ” she quips to a capacity crowd at the weekly lunch gathering for the Topeka YWCA.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Anderson’s parents are preachers, and she segues seamlessly from teacher mode – sharing data points about the district – to evangelist.

“Imagine if poverty did not impact young people,” she says to the luncheon crowd. “Imagine every child had a home to go to and food and security was not an issue.”

“Really, you don’t have to imagine it. If we just wake up and change how we address issues, change how we think and realize that collectively, we literally can change systems,” she says. “Programs come and go, people come and go, but systems remain. And once you learn that, you can change systems pretty quickly and keep it in place.”

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Topeka’s first black female superintendent has been making the rounds – and admirers – on the local speaking circuit. The annual state of the district breakfast typically draws around 200 people and raises around $20,000, says Johnson-Betts.

This year, with Anderson as the speaker, the crowd topped 350 and raised $35,000 that will be spent on scholarships and school projects.

“In the nine years I’ve been here, this is the first year we’ve sold out,” Johnson-Betts says. “The community has received her (Anderson) well because she wrapped her arms around the community.”

'I'm still a teacher, just my classroom looks different.'

Public support for a charismatic leader is no substitute for students who’ve mastered the academic skills they’ll need to success in college or on a job.

The research on superintendents’ impact on student achievement is mixed.

Mr. Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators says superintendents do matter. He points to a 2013 survey of rural Kentucky schools that found students’ achievement test scores rose when superintendents’ tenure lasted at least five years.

But a 2014 Brookings Institute report on public schools in North Carolina and Florida concluded that “hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.” It also found “student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.”

Too many factors influence student achievement to be able to isolate the impact of the district’s CEO. “In the end it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable,” the report said.

The average length of a school superintendent is five to six years; for urban school superintendents it’s 3.2 years.

Says Domenech: “It takes at least four to five years for any initiative that’s put in place in a school district to come to fruition. If you’re constantly changing leadership and the goals and initiatives, it’s never going to take.”

Among the initiatives Anderson has already launched in Topeka: Spanish lessons taught by the ESL elementary school teacher for other teachers, and eventually parents; ACT prep at all high schools and at least one test offered during the school day, for students who work on weekends; the addition of local employers to the annual college fair, for students who might not be going directly into a post-secondary degree; professional development for teachers on the Fridays when the school day begins later.

Anecdotes aren’t evidence, of course. But glum pronouncements about superintendents are hard to stomach in the face of Anderson’s optimism and persistence.  

“God has gifted me with a purpose and it’s clearly to connect with others… I’m still a teacher, just my classroom looks different. It’s bigger.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Janel Johnson's name.

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