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Jennings superintendent hired for top job in Topeka, Kan., schools

Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson takes her turn as a crossing guard.
Jennings School District
Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson takes her turn as a crossing guard.

Updated 7:10 p.m. Friday with Anderson being hired in Topeka, her comments: Tiffany Anderson, whose leadership in the Jennings school district since 2012 resulted in its earning full accreditation, will become the new superintendent of schools in Topeka, Kan., starting July 1.

The head of the school board in Topeka, Patrick Woods, made the announcement late Friday. Anderson had been one of two finalists for the job.

"We had a number of very qualified candidates to review and meet with," Woods said in a statement, "but in the end Dr. Anderson had the experience we need at Topeka Public Schools. Her time successfully leading districts with diverse populations and improving test scores in her district is something that resonated with our board."

The Topeka school board chose Anderson Thursday night after a lengthy meeting but held up announcing their choice until negotiations for a contract were completed.

In an interview, Anderson said she is often contacted by recruiters but usually declines to entertain offers to move. But between the fact that Topeka is near where her family lives in Kansas and the fact that schools there are similar to what she has dealt with in Jennings, she said she felt it was a good match.

"This is a district that has tremendous potential and shows lots of opportunities that are waiting to be explored," she said. "A lot of the challenges are like those that were in Jennings."

Topeka has 14,000 students, nearly five times the enrollment of Jennings, and about 70 percent of its students come from low-income families, compared with 100 percent in Jennings. But Anderson has earned national recognition for her performance and her insistence that children in poverty have the same potential to learn as anyone else.

"I knew that Jennings could be transformed," she said, "and I know that Topeka can achieve at much higher levels than where they are now. It's really a pretty amazing district with a lot of resources that are waiting to be further explored and developed, where the kids can really succeed at higher levels."

Coming to a city that has a central role in the history of school desegregation also means a lot, she said, as she becomes the first African-American female superintendent in Topeka.

Anderson noted that to get to her new job, she will pass the University of Kansas, where her son is a student. She said her family will be glad she doesn't have to spend so much time on the road anymore.

"My family is pleased that I will have an opportunity to have breakfast and dinnner with them more frequently than I've had," she said. "They've given a tremendous investment to St. Louis as well in supporting me in four years of spending more time with my school family here in Jennings than I have with them, quite frankly. I feel so fortunate to have a family that has done that, and now it's time to spend tim with a community where I live. I live in Kansas."

Our earlier story - Updated 8:56 a.m. Thursday with comments about moving to Kansas: Tiffany Anderson, whose performance as superintendent of the Jennings school district has raised the schools’ accreditation and garnered national acclaim, may soon be moving on.

Anderson is one of two finalists for the superintendent’s post in Topeka, Kan. She spoke with officials of the district and others at a meet and greet session Tuesday night; the other finalist, Frank Harwood, central administrator of schools in Bellevue, Neb., was scheduled to hold a similar session Wednesday night.

Patrick Woods, president of the Topeka school board, said that after both candidates have had meetings with board members, a final selection will be made, possibly as early as this week.

“We're going to certainly try and work diligently to get it wrapped up as soon as possible,” Woods said. “You make a decision, and then you into enter negotiations with whoever the top candidate is, and try and see what you can work out.”

Reached briefly by phone on Wednesday, Anderson said she wouldn’t discuss the Topeka situation until it is settled, including whether she had applied for the job or whether she was recruited.

“I can't comment on anything now,” she said. “I'll wait and comment until everything is over with, and then we'll connect.”

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Anderson said she would be "one of few African-American women superintendents in Kansas and the first African-American female superintendent in Topeka, Kan., if she is offered the role and chooses to accept."

Tiffany Anderson meets with a group from the Topeka, Kan., school district Tuesday night.
Credit WIBW television
Tiffany Anderson meets with a group from the Topeka, Kan., school district Tuesday night.

Working in Topeka would put Anderson closer to her family. Her husband is a physician in Kansas City, where their son attends school, so she regularly commutes between there and St. Louis County.

In the email, she noted that her daughter would be graduating from Saint Louis University this coming December and her son attends the University of Kansas. 

"Like Jennings," the statement said, "the majority of students in Topeka receive free/reduced lunch and they are also focused on equity issues and closing the achievement gap."

In an interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal , Anderson sounded eager to be closer to her family.

“I am looking forward to living in Kansas and retiring in Kansas and finishing my career in my final district," she said. "And so my hope is that, to, we haven’t moved from Kansas for a reason. Many people say, why don’t you move to St Louis, because I’m from St Louis, and my parents live there, and we were intentional about selecting Kansas as our place of residence and where we plan to retire from. And so I am looking for longevity.”

She added:

"My husband is an OB/GYN and a robotic surgeon (in Johnson County) ... And so one of the things with OB/GYNs, you do have to live near the hospital that you work at. And so he has an established patient base and practice. I am proud to say that we are Kansas residents and have been for many years....

"In Jennings, I do stay over ... I stay over in the evenings every other day in an apartment that’s there. It’s certainly quite possible — again at this point we’re still in the stage of meeting the community — but it’s certainly quite possible that a dual-resident situation could occur.”

During the session Tuesday night, Anderson addressed one of the biggest issues in Topeka schools – funding – according to WIBW television.

“Rather than tackling the way schools are funded, ... really looking at what we are doing with what we have," she said. "That's the first piece, and then making sure that there is a relationship built with legislators to better understand the needs in the district."

Anderson has been a nonstop cheerleader for Jennings, making sure its achievements are recognized. The district’s score on the annual state report card has risen steadily since she became superintendent in 2012 and moved into full accreditation territory in 2014. It rose even more last year, prompting the state school board to grant the district’s request for full accreditation.

'Your ZIP code should not determine what kind of education you get, and we're showing that it doesn't have to.' - Tiffany Anderson

She has said repeatedly that success in Jennings shows that students who come from low-income homes can learn as well as anyone else.

“What we're showing is that poverty doesn't make a difference,” Anderson said last month. “Your ZIP code should not determine what kind of education you get, and we're showing that it doesn't have to.”

Her accomplishments have drawn national recognition, with stories from NPR, the Washington Post, Slate and others hailing her as a superwoman who has figured out some of education’s toughest problems.

In her district, she is known as the woman in white tennis shoes who not only runs the place but also takes her turn as a crossing guard.

Anderson has had one assistant superintendent this year, Phillip Boyd, but he left the district last month to go to graduate school full time and earn his doctorate.

The Topeka schools have about 14,200 students, with more than three-quarters of them from low-income families. Jennings' enrollment is about 3,000 students, with all of them from low-income families.

The new superintendent in Topeka would replace Julie Ford, who is retiring at the end of the current school year.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.