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She made schools work for poor kids in Jennings, Mo., and now she is moving on

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the school district in Jennings, Mo., serves hot cocoa to students on their way to school. Anderson is a hands-on superintendent and regularly serves as a crossing guard. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Jennings School District used to be one of the lowest-performing districts in Missouri, on the brink of losing its accreditation. Then, in 2012, Tiffany Anderson showed up in her white tennis shoes.

She started a food bank and installed washers and dryers that parents could use in exchange for an hour of volunteering in their child’s classroom. She opened a shelter for homeless teens and a medical clinic at the high school. She also raised expectations for teachers and erased a substantial budget deficit.

Now Jennings, a district whose students are overwhelmingly poor and black, has become fully accredited for the first time in many years, and the community is full of pride in what its schools — and its kids — have shown they are capable of doing.

And Anderson has decided it is time to move on.

This superintendent has figured out how to make school work for poor kids

She has accepted a new job leading the school system in Topeka, Kan., which serves 14,000 students and is more than four times larger than the system in Jennings.

Anderson wants to show that her approach to transforming schools can work anywhere. “It can be replicated anywhere, in any district of any size,” she said in an interview Sunday.

In Jennings, news of Anderson’s impending departure was a blow.

“I hate the idea she is leaving,” Rose Mary Johnson, who has served 22 years on the Jennings School Board, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But I understand … there are so many districts that are like Jennings, maybe worse off, that need a touch.”

“I’m wondering if someday somebody’s going to click their heels and she’s going to go ‘poof,’ and we’re not going to have anyone else,” Jennings art teacher Jeff Arnold said last month, before Anderson announced she would leave. “She’s the best thing that’s happened to us in a very long time.”

Anderson said she’s confident Jennings will continue making progress. “We have a fantastic team,” she said. “I’ve just been the person to build the foundation and start the journey and put them on the right path, and then it’s up to the collective body to ensure the work continues.”

Not incidentally, Anderson’s new job also will mean far less time in the car. She has been driving four hours to Jennings from her home in Overland Park, Kan., several days a week. Her new drive will be a mere 50 minutes.

But that was only a small part of her decision, she said. She also was drawn by the prospect of becoming the first female African American superintendent in Topeka. And she’s interested in continuing the tradition of serving as a spokesperson for education before the state legislature. She’ll be able to see the capitol from her new office when she takes over in July.

“I truly feel that this is the next step I’m supposed to take,” Anderson said. “Now you have a black female leading the district who will also be somewhat of a voice on public education in the state of Kansas.”

The city’s racially segregated schools gave rise to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that paved the way for integrated schools. But Topeka has continued to struggle with racial tensions, Anderson said, and its school system struggles with large achievement gaps and concerns that children do not all have access to the same opportunities.

The challenges she faces in Topeka will in some ways differ from those she encountered in Jennings.

In Jennings, nearly every family is African American and qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. In Topeka, more than three-quarters of families are low-income, but it is more racially diverse: 40 percent of students are white, 30 percent are Latino and 19 percent are African American.

Just 71 percent of students graduated from high school on time in 2014, far short of the national average.

Anderson said she sees a district with all the ingredients it needs to improve, including a stable school board and a community that’s committed to public education, as proven by its recent vote in favor of a bond measure for schools. “They have so much potential, just like Jennings four years ago,” she said.

She said she’s not saying goodbye to Jennings. She’s still going to be part of the community, is still going to care what happens there, and is still going to send Jennings kids care packages when they go off to college.

But she wrestled for a time with whether moving on was really the right thing to do. Then she read a speech that First Lady Michelle Obama gave to Topeka high school graduates two years ago.

“Every day, you have the power to choose our better history,” Obama told the students, referring to their ability to help the nation move its racially segregated past.

That sentiment resonated with Anderson, and she decided going to Topeka — and expanding her efforts to reach more students — was the right thing to do. As she put it: “I really felt this is my part to play in making a better history.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Anderson will be the first African American superintendent of Topeka schools. She will be the first African American woman to serve as superintendent. This version has been corrected.