Topeka School Superintendent treks 120 miles, thousands of steps each day to make difference

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- People who teach don't always do it for money. 

For many, it’s their passion.

Dr. Tiffany Anderson lives that passion – her purpose – everyday. 

Anderson is the first African American woman superintendent of public schools in Topeka, Kan. The same district where, in May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled segregation of schools was unconstitutional. 

Anderson lives in Overland Park, Kan. She wakes most days around 2 a.m. She checks email and responds, looks ahead at her day, and reads news articles. 

By 4 a.m., she’s in her car heading for Topeka. Depending on if she stops to pick up coffee and donuts for staff, or if she stops at Walmart for flowers or small gifts, she usually arrives in Topeka by 5:30 a.m. 

On a recent Monday morning, 41 Action News Anchor Christa Dubill accompanied Anderson during her early start. The pair met at a KC-area gas station where Anderson typically fills her vehicle’s tank with gas. 

It was 4 a.m.

In the back of the SUV, she always has at least four suit jackets, each one representing the colors of Topeka’s high schools. She has multiple scarves in several colors and even supplies for art and science projects.

In the backseat is a basket. On any given day, the items in the basket change. The basket carries anything she is planning to deliver that day or week.

During the recent Monday morning, Anderson’s basket was full of books to read to classrooms and a clipboard. The clipboard had a folder of paperwork and a few pictures of a boy in a graduation gown.

Anderson explained it was for the mom of a boy the district held graduation for in jail. They’d taken graduation to him. They’d taken a cap and gown to him. They took pictures, and Anderson would be taking those things to the boy’s mom. 

During her commute, Anderson typically listens to a sermon on her radio – usually one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The drive gives Anderson – and any of her passengers – a time to reflect on her career and teaching.

On the devastating tragedy that changed her views about teaching

She was a new principal at an urban school in St. Louis. 

“One year, there was a tragedy at our school that really changed how I thought about education. Rodney McAllister, one of our 4th grade students passed away directly across the street from the school.  

I got to school and had a phone call from the police department and they asked if all my students had shown up for the day. You're talking about a school that was 99 percent African American and had 100 percent poverty. That is not a phone call you want to get. And I sent my para-liaison through the building to go see if all the kids were here. She came back within minutes with the attendance roster. 

Mr. Clark - he was the 4th grade teacher at the time - he was getting ready to take his kids to the art museum and he had a student that was absent. So, we stopped them from going to the art museum. We called the police department and shared the roster. Within the hour, we learned that Rodney had been mauled to death by dogs across the street from the school,” 

Anderson’s account of the story still includes a sadness that’s prevalent in her voice.

“We pulled Mr. Clark in to share with him the news and give him his moment. And then we proceed on with the things that have to happen, including going to tell Rodney's mother. She did not know. She had been strung out on drugs from the night,” Anderson said.

“They had to identify him from the homework in his pocket,” she said. 

“You couldn't identify him from his body, he was that badly mutilated. So, I asked my parents, ‘didn't you hear screaming?’ and they said, ‘of course we heard screaming all night!’ Then why didn't you open the door?” she pressed.

“You know,” she described them saying, recounting their indignation, “in this neighborhood, when you hear screaming, you lock the door and you close the blinds. And when you hear gunshots, you hide under the bed or the couch.”

“It was at that moment I realized that if you don't transform a community, your impact on changing lives will be minimal,” Anderson said. “If you don't transform schools to impact the community that surrounds it, your impact on lives will be minimal.”

To this day, Anderson wears a colorful scarf every day in honor of Rodney. She will never forget him.

She’s also implemented programs within the district that cater to families. Some of her schools now have washers and dryers where parents can do laundry in exchange for an hour of volunteering in school. There are things like food pantries and places for clothing.

On working in Topeka and living in Overland Park:

The school district changed their rules when they hired Anderson and as a result, the superintendent no longer has to live in the district. Anderson convinced the board she would spend more time in the district and getting to know families than someone who lived nearby. Arriving at 5:30 a.m. daily, and not leaving until at least 7 p.m. most days, would seem like enough. She also drives over early Sunday mornings to attend several church services in the district. She believes her time in Topeka is critical to gaining trust and making a full commitment to her students and families. 

On her family:

Anderson has two grown children, Christopher and Whitney, whom are both in school. Her husband, Dr. Stanley Ladelle Anderson passed away in August of 2017 from multiple myeloma. Her husband was an OB-GYN physician at Research Medical Center where he also served as chairperson for the OB-GYN Department. 

They were soul mates and spent any extra time they had together. They often joked that he could bring babies into the world, and she could take it from there through education.

On food and drink:

Anderson eats one meal a day, often at 8 p.m. when she gets home for the day. She doesn’t really snack, and drinks mostly Dr. Pepper throughout the day.

On school funding:

When asked if she has the money she needs to educate children, she said few schools do.

“You know, I don't know that there has been any public school system that I have joined that hasn't had a budget issue and Kansas is worse in regards to school finance than any other place I've been in compared St. Louis or even Virginia. We rank 45th out of 50 states in paying teachers,” she said.

If she could ask and receive one thing, Anderson most hopes for flexibility.

“Resources with the flexibility to use the resources for ways that can have a sustainable impact on schools is essential. Sometimes we're given resources but they are categorized in ways you can only use it for certain activities within the school. You can only use it for professional development. Only for construction. You can only use it in certain ways. In some degrees it ties your hands to support schools,” she said.

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On the day 41 Action News accompanied her, Anderson arrived at Topeka’s district headquarters at 5:30 a.m. She unlocked the doors, and flipped on the lights as she navigated through the empty and quiet office space. 

She grabbed a big box full of bagged treats and rushed off to deliver bags to every desk in the building. She moves fast, which is why she wears socks and sneakers every day with her dress suit. She can’t be slowed by high heels or uncomfortable shoes.

Anderson’s schedule packs more in before 8 a.m. than most people might do all morning:

  • 5:30 a.m. – Meet with Dr. Bill Macdonald, School Improvement Specialist (this meeting was done while walking and delivering small treats to staff desks because Anderson had been delayed by our news team’s presence.)
  • 6 a.m. – Interview an assistant principal candidate  
  • 7 a.m. – Host Principal’s Leadership Academy for district principals. 
  • 7:30 a.m. – Attend monthly school board member meeting (she meets with two board members monthly).
  • 8:30 a.m. - Teach art class at a district middle school. She teaches a class at least once a month, but spends time at schools daily. Anderson uses this to know what’s going on. On the recent Monday, she’s set to teach two classes with a 45-minute window between the two.

During the 45-minute break, Anderson reminded others she doesn’t like sitting still. 

In front of the cameras, she picked up a phone and called a student. 

Nae (we aren’t using her last name for privacy reasons) had gotten pregnant as a senior in high school. It had been more than two months since Nae had delivered her baby girl and she still wasn’t back in school, and Anderson was concerned. She worried about whether Nae had a place to live. 

On top of that, Anderson was worried she wouldn’t graduate. She wanted Nae to know she had options. 

“I'm going to be checking on you until you graduate,” Anderson said into the phone, not ready to give up on Nae.

Anderson explained she had a laundry basket full of supplies – for both Nae and the baby. She’s hoping this will be the small gesture Nae needs to agree to a visit.

“Some laundry stuff. Some, towels some other stuff in the basket. Want me to swing that on by?” Anderson asked.

Nae agreed to a visit. 

“Okay. Text me your address and I’ll come now,” Anderson said.

(Editor’s note: We left our television cameras behind at the school, but followed Anderson to Nae’s home. We were allowed to record the visit with a cell phone.)

 

 

Before getting out of the car, Anderson called Nae to make sure it was okay to bring a reporter inside. The move was to calm any nerves Nae might have that the reporter was a worker from Department of Children and Families.

Once inside, Anderson kneeled on the floor in front of Nae to put down the basket and start taking things out.

The two talked about the baby, Nae’s job, internet access and the possibility of Nae taking online courses. Nae only needs two more classes to graduate.

Nae explained this was her apartment - just hers and the baby’s. She talked about going back to work soon to her $9 an-hour job. Anderson asked about the baby’s father and Nae’s current boyfriend.

Nae admitted being nervous about life after high school.

"This is really about where do you see yourself. Do you see yourself like me, wearing a suit and going to work?” asked Anderson, talking quickly and with purpose.

“I want to,” said Nae with a smile.

“Having a baby doesn't mean you can't go to college - It means that you must go to college,” Anderson said with the assurance of a mother.

The visit lasted 20 minutes.

It’s clear Nae was moved by Anderson’s visit. Nae still has hopes to finish high school, get a good job and maybe go to college.

The 20-minute visit was over quickly and Anderson left to head back to the school where she was set to teach another class.

Back in the hallways of school, Anderson stops almost every student she passes and starts up a conversation.

She keeps mistakenly telling people “Good Afternoon,” which is easy to understand since she’s been at work since early in the morning.

Anderson finishes out her day with more appointments and meetings. She planned to attend a handful of PTO meetings at various schools before getting back in her car to head home to Overland Park. 

She usually gets home around 8 p.m.

As the sun sets on her day, she eats her one meal of the day after 8 p.m. She used to eat with her husband, but these days she’s usually home alone.

Tomorrow, Anderson will get up and do it again. And the next day, she'll do it again. 

“I am literally living my purpose every day,” she said. “I hope that everyone gets the privilege to do that.”

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