Topeka superintendent tells how to close achievement gaps

To casual observers, Dr. Tiffany Anderson is that “boots on the ground” superintendent who wears white sneakers wherever she goes – school visits, board meetings, even as a specially invited guest walking the red carpet at February’s Academy Awards.

But to close followers of the education landscape, Anderson is equally as well known, and admired, for her success at improving achievement and closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged and marginalized students in rural, urban, and suburban public school districts. 

She discussed what she’s learned about transforming schools during an Equity Monday session at NSBA’s Annual Conference.

Superintendent of the 14,000-student Topeka Public Schools for the past year, Anderson was recruited from Missouri’s Jennings School District, just outside of St. Louis. There, she led a dramatic turnaround in the 2,500-student district.

Considered one of the worst-performing systems in the state when she came on board, the district won back full state accreditation after eight years of provisional standing and pushed graduation rates over 90 percent.

Anderson had similar results in Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia. All 20 schools in the 10,000-student district became accredited under her leadership and multiple schools were recognized under the Governor’s Competence to Excellence Award.

Essential to those transformations was an emphasis on building relationships, strong pedagogy, rigorous, standards-based curriculum, and high expectations, she said: “If a district is not performing where you want it to be, one of those things is broken.”

Relationship building and establishing trust is key, said Anderson. “You can’t lead anyone if you don’t have a relationship. Students will learn from you if they trust you. Grown folks are the same.”

For board members, establishing trust and a willingness to talk and listen “is so important because people are watching,” she said. “They will do what you do.”

Anderson also stressed the importance of thinking “bigger, broader” when it comes to providing services that support poor students, enabling them to stay in school and achieve. 

In Jennings, for example, the district partnered with the foster care system to establish a home for homeless students, keeping them out of state care and in their neighborhood schools, connected to supportive staff, teachers, and friends.

In Topeka, Tot SPOT, a mobile therapy van brings speech, language, and other early childhood services directly to preschoolers.

Anderson emphasized the importance of researching what other districts and schools are doing that can be replicated — and improved on — for your district. Sharing information about what is working in your schools is also important. “We have to tell the story,” she said.

The superintendent is adamant about collecting and using data to inform and improve teaching and learning. “Everything should be standards driven,” she explained.

A pet peeve: When districts put their curriculum under lock and key, making it difficult for others to easily access it, study it, and learn from it. Good programs should be shared, she said. “We are in this for all kids across America.”

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