New from ASBJ: Building resilience in Topeka

Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson greeted us in the lobby of the district’s Burnett Administrative Center early on a Tuesday morning. Dressed in her trademark white sneakers, skirt and jacket suit, and scarf draped around her neck, she was welcoming and friendly but already juggling the demands of a particularly challenging and emotional week.  

Videographer Connor Toomy and I traveled from Alexandria, Virginia, to Northeast Kansas to learn about Topeka’s district-wide focus on student mental health and the role that trauma exposure and toxic stress play in the brain development of children and teens.

By implementing trauma-informed strategies and providing vital training to teachers, administrators and staff, Topeka, like a growing number of districts across the country, aims to build trauma resiliency and coping skills in students and equip teachers and staff to better support children and families impacted by exposure to poverty, abandonment, violence and other adverse experiences.

Without such supports, these students are more likely to experience long-term academic and social-emotional development delays, said Anderson, a highly regarded speaker and advocate on the importance of trauma-informed training and trauma sensitivity in schools.

The walls of her Burnett Center office are full of eye-catching, student-made artwork given to her over two decades as a teacher, principal, and administrator, the past year in Topeka. Some of that art reflects “the traumatic lives” that too many students, particularly students living in poverty, face, she said. Those lives help explain the “boots on the ground” “move fast” mentality that her sneakers represent: Speed is important, she said, because “children do not have time to wait for you to get something right. They’re banking on you today.”

As for her penchant for scarves, she explained that she wears them in memory of Rodney McAllister Jr., a former student in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2001, the fourth-grader was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs in Ivory Perry Park. He had not been reported missing when his body was found in the park early one morning. Neighbors told Anderson, then principal of the boy’s school, that they heard screams the night before but didn’t investigate or call police because of their own fears of crime and violence outside their doors.

“That year I began receiving scarfs with a note that said ‘Save the Children,’” Anderson recalled. To this day, she doesn’t know who sent them, but the first scarf was decorated with children’s handprints. Today, a memorial with a tree and a plaque featuring the handprints of Rodney’s classmates stands in the park where the 10-year-old died.

That incident “changed me in many ways,” Anderson said, from the emphasis she now puts on knowing the story behind students’ behavior, to her determination to put in place systems and programs designed to help kids in need and give them a running start in school.

“If you really put students first, if you address the issues of mental health and the whole child in every way, you can change and transform not only that child but that community,” she said.

View “No Ordinary Day,” our multimedia story on Topeka’s trauma program and stories on other innovative districts here.

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