The Education of Dr. Tiffany Anderson

How love, death and daring taught a rising star how to elevate our schools

Every morning at 4 a.m., after she climbs into her car, Dr. Tiffany Anderson pulls her husband's funeral-service photo out of her car sun visor, and studies it. "He's the first thing I see every workday. And the last," she said. "What a handsome man."

Like most days, she's been awake and working since 2 a.m.

She slips the photo back into the visor, and tunes her car speakers to one of the audio sermons stored on her phone—usually from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and drives an hour west, from the Kansas City suburbs to Topeka, where she's superintendent of the city's 14,000 public school children. There, in the district where the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision made school integration the law of the land, she visits multiple schools each week, walking hallways at a furious pace. In her signature dress suit and sneakers, her 5-ft.-2-in. frame leaning forward, Anderson calls out to custodians, teachers and students by their first names. "What's your biggest challenge this week? How do you like the new principal? How's the food service?"

Superintendent Anderson changes her outfit for the next school.
Anderson visits several Topeka schools every week, and in school parking lots makes quick wardrobe changes into jackets and scarves matching each school's official colors. The scarves long ago became her signature trademark—a way for her to memorialize Rodney McAllister, a 10-year-old student mauled to death by dogs outside the first school Anderson ran in St. Louis. His death changed her thinking about poverty in schools. (Credit: All photos by Roy Wenzl.)

People everywhere decry failures in public schools—and search for saviors. Anderson, 45, has led the work to improve school test scores and close achievement gaps in three states. In 2012 she took over the Jennings, Missouri School District, one of the worst-performing systems in the country, and helped regain the school accreditation they'd lost years before and raise the graduation rate to 93 percent. The Washington Post profiled her. So did NPR. Slate's headline for its 2015 Tiffany Anderson story called her "the superwoman superintendent."

And while accolades mounted, she was commuting four to eight hours every day to Jennings from Kansas City, where Dr. Stanley Anderson, her husband and father of their two children, was delivering newborns full-time—even as he was suffering from multiple myeloma cancer. Stan wanted it that way. They'd had a solemn pact from the beginning of their marriage: He would nurture newborns and mothers, and she would tend to the children through their school years. It was their mission, and he didn't want cancer to get in the way.

So they both kept working. And they told no one.

Taking Care of Basics

After she took over schools in Topeka in 2016, "she made the school board members who hired her look like the smartest people on the planet," said Patrick Woods, the district's school-board president.

Her predecessors had made progress, he said, but the district faces daunting challenges: Seventy-eight percent of students qualify as poor and eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Six hundred classify as homeless. Kids from one side of town show up literate; others arrive having never owned a book.

Superintendent Anderson speaks with students in the cafeteria.
At Highland Park Central Elementary School, Anderson quizzes students about everything from how lunches could be improved to whether any of them need her help with their classwork. (Students, from left to right: Izaya Cosey, Hayleigh Emery, Aaron Galicia Wagner, Melanie Gonzalez, Griffin Hall, Jah'nea Jones, Diego Juarez, Emma Bledsoe, Saul Ramos, Kendall Rohrer, E'lonna Thomas, Tylee-Al Williams, Mia Rojas)

Woods said Anderson, who has two doctoral degrees, worked quickly to address students' crucial underlying needs. She established partnerships to solicit donations, to set up clothing and food banks, as well as laundry and medical facilities. She set up classes to help parents get their high-school equivalency degrees—and to learn how to be better parents. And, in a move designed to really level the playing field, she began creating a new early-childhood facility.

"She really led a charge for us," said Woods. "She's got vision."

Above all, Anderson placed a new and profound emphasis on administrators getting more directly involved with students. She asked every Topeka central-office administrator, including the one running food services, to mentor a senior in high school to help ensure every high school student went into college or a career.

"We're all teachers," she told them. "Our classrooms just look different."

Recognizing Others

On Friday, Jan. 5, a news reporter shadowed her at work and struggled to keep up with her walking pace for two hours.

Her day had started in the wee hours when, as part of her school-district paperwork, she read The Topeka Capital-Journal to find sports and academic stories mentioning her district's students. With the help of her clerical staff, the stories are cut, then laminated into attractive poster-sized mementoes.

That day, she visited three schools, hand-delivering nine such posters on the run to principals to give to their students. She also handed out flowers and gifts she'd bought herself—to a teacher, a custodian and other staff members. She delivered a birthday card to a student, which she signed in the parking lot, using her steering wheel as a desktop.

Superintendent Anderson and Joan Barker.
On school visits, Anderson often passes out flowers, birthday cards and small gifts of appreciation to teachers and school-district staff, such as Joan Barker, the administrative secretary of the Topeka High Historical Society.

She squealed and hugged Alijah McCracken when the Highland Park High senior showed her a formal letter saying she had just been accepted to attend Washburn University in the fall—to major in education. "Look at you, Miss McCracken, at age 18!" Alijah is the student Dr. Anderson is mentoring this school year.

"She might have decided on education because she just likes me," said Anderson. "She might change her mind later. But in talking about her goals, we worked together—and Alijah got that college application done."

Gathering Intel

At Highland Park Central Elementary School, Anderson tucked her hair in a net, tied on an apron and stood alongside cooks and servers, scooping corn and beans for Taco Friday. After taking off the apron, she sat down to quiz students at the tables.

"What she does makes her much more accessible," said Highland Park Central's principal, Pilar Mejia, an educator with a Ph.D who, in the same spirit, was mopping cafeteria tabletops while Anderson served. "Students and teachers can just walk up to her and tell her about problems, without having to make an appointment."

Superintendent Anderson helps serve a school lunch.
Anderson helps serve lunch at a Topeka school at least once a week. She does it to show solidarity with students and staff, she said—but she also queries staff about pressing problems her district administrative staff can address.

"Bus 107 needs new heaters," Anderson said afterward. "I learned that from one of the cafeteria workers scooping food beside me, because bus driving is her second job with us.

"And apparently, from what the kids told me, hamburger day at this school is not necessarily the best lunch day."

She laughed.

"That's two things I got out of serving food today, along with how Clayton Schrader, the dean of students here, says he never got a school name tag. And now we can fix all of that."

She grinned. "You can't find out any of that stuff by sitting in an office."

The same kind of thinking underlies the district's decision to allow Highland Park High School to serve as a setting for A&E Network's groundbreaking show "Undercover High." The series, which embedded seven 20-somethings among Highland Park's student population, was designed to ferret out what educators struggle daily to learn: the real-life challenges and complexities facing teens today.

"On a national level, schools are dealing with similar problems, from school funding to social media," Anderson said in the show's first episode. "We want to look at adolescent issues from a student perspective. What's life like in high school? Unless you're the person walking in those shoes, you really don't know."

The Ones Who Taught Her

Here's what she learned, when life and tragedy challenged her.

The first school she ran as a principal was Clark Elementary School in St. Louis, in 2001, in a building so rundown that staff had to put buckets on floors everywhere when it rained. A startled Anderson, who had grown up middle class, asked a veteran Clark teacher: "How do you teach in the rain?"

"Around the buckets, baby," the teacher told her cheerfully. "How do YOU teach in the rain?"

She learned from that: Make do with what you have.

Superintendent Anderson interacts with students.
Anderson interacted with students as she donned an apron to serve lunch at Highland Park Central Elementary School. Since taking the Topeka superintendent's job, she asked all administrators to spend time in the classroom and visiting with students and staff, and even to personally mentor pupils.

In March that year, a pack of dogs tore one of her students to pieces, across the street from her school. Rodney McAllister was only 10, a fourth grader, the sometimes homeless child of a crack-addicted mother.

"He was torn so bad police had to identify him from the homework found in his pocket," Anderson said.

Shocked, furious, she questioned neighborhood parents.

"Didn't you hear the screaming?"

"Of course, we heard screaming."

"Why didn't you open the door?"

"Doc," one parent told her: "In this neighborhood, when we hear screaming, we lock our doors. When you hear screaming and gunshots, you hide under the bed."

Everything changed then—about how Anderson taught, and thought.

"I realized: If you've got fear and anxiety and crime in the community this bad, it shapes the kids that come in—it shapes parents, and even how much they help one another," she said. "And I thought, after that: 'how can we make sure we never ever fail another child like this again?'"

That year, she said, they put washers and dryers in the school, started a GED program for parents and launched a food pantry. "We decided: Whatever it takes."

And she began wearing multi-colored scarves. "It's something I wear every day, to remind me of Rodney McAllister." They became her trademark, a visible public pledge draped around her body every day—a reminder that "we must never forget what we're here to do."

'We Believe We Have a Purpose'

Dr. Stanley Anderson died on Aug. 11 at age 49. The first African-American OB-GYN chair for one of the largest hospitals in Kansas City, Missouri, he had delivered thousands of babies, including their own two.

"You bring 'em into the world, baby," his wife told him, early on. "And I got 'em from there. Birth to 12th grade, baby, we got this!"

His death came three days short of their 24th wedding anniversary, which coincided with the first day of the school year in Topeka.

News of the death stunned Woods, the school board president. Since Stanley was first diagnosed as terminal, in 2013, the couple never told a soul. Both continued pouring energy into their shared mission of serving families and children; he saw patients up until two weeks before he passed. "We handled it that way because we believe we have a purpose in life, a spiritual purpose," she said. "And we didn't feel like the terminal diagnosis would change our purpose."

When they weren't working, they spent every moment together—including treatment. She called it "our chemotherapy."

Superintendent Anderson holds a family photo.
Anderson's husband, Dr. Stanley Anderson (second from right), was a renowned OB-GYN who delivered thousands of newborns, including their own children, Chris (left) and Whitney (right). He helped shape Anderson's own career as a teacher and schools superintendent.

After years of watching him set up productive diagnostic meetings with his patients and fellow doctors, Anderson years ago translated that idea into the school environment. She began teaching her principals and teachers to do the same "diagnostic" meetings with parents and students—in students' homes. She asks her principals, repeatedly: "How are those home visits going?"

And when, a few years ago, he built on his training as a molecular biologist and OB-GYN to become one of a handful of regional practitioners of robotic surgery, the lesson wasn't lost on his wife that sometimes solving problems involves innovation and embracing risk.

In that way, and so many others, she said, "My brilliant husband helped shape my career."

"Look," she said. "You can embrace the sorrow, or embrace the joy. I choose the joy. I got 24 years with that fantastic, handsome man. He helped shape me, inspire me."

"My career is a 24-year love story."

Roy Wenzl is a Kansas-based journalist and the co-author of Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door and The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero.