December 2, 2020
NTS student Tiffany Anderson follows God’s call to serve underprivileged school districts
Serving children, families, and their neighborhoods by turning around school districts in economically disadvantaged communities is Dr. Tiffany Anderson’s calling and ministry. It’s led her from Blacksburg, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and now to Topeka, Kansas.
As school district superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, her energetic, hands-on, and innovative problem-solving approach has dignified the communities where she serves by revealing the skills, expertise, and resources they already possess to improve their schools, families and neighborhoods.
With love for God and people driving her work, Anderson enrolled at Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2019 to bring a deeper theological foundation to her work in public education.
Innovation through relationships
In underprivileged communities, schools often lack resources. But that isn’t the biggest challenge, Anderson asserts.
“It’s not the resources, it’s the mindset,” she said. “Mindset is one of the most difficult things to impact.”
Rather than seeking more government funding, or advocating for higher taxes, Anderson looks for the untapped resources God has already placed in her staff, her students, their families, and the communities at large, and teaches people how to leverage them.
“Innovation is really an outgrowth of helping people discover what they already have within them and who they can be, and then empowering them with the tools to become their better selves,” she said. “It’s not necessarily me; I’m just guiding.”
That’s why Anderson spends so much time forging trust and relationships with and between her staff and teachers, as well as across the community, from local churches to organizations and businesses. This might mean asking professional associations to provide career advice for high school students. Other times it means networking with local churches, organizing them to provide meals for students when they’re out of school. She attends four different churches one Sunday a month to get to know more people in the community—and to be known and accessible to families.
“If you can create a system in which people focus on relationships, and they focus on systems that aren’t based on money but based on their own internal capacity to work towards the greater good, it will continue,” Anderson said.
To prove her point, when Anderson left Jennings, the district boasted a 95 percent graduation rate. It’s increased since then to 100 percent under her successors.
In the four years that Anderson has led Topeka Public Schools, the district has doubled college course offerings, student attendance has increased more than 90 percent, the number of students taking the ACT has increased, along with the district’s achievement scores.
Likewise, Jennings flourished under her leadership. When she arrived, it was in a $1.8 million budget deficit, and the schools met less than 60 percent of state education standards. It was in danger of losing its state accreditation. When she left, the district’s budget was in the black, accreditation was secure and the schools were meeting more than 80 percent of state standards.
But her leadership has not just led to improved educational performance or attendance. It has meant one school district opening a shelter for homeless students. And filling a need for laundry services by installing washers and dryers at the school and inviting parents to do a load of laundry in exchange for an hour of volunteering at the school.
Education as Christian service
Raised by parents who were both ordained ministers in the Baptist church, Anderson grew up with the motto, “service above self.”
“We are intended to be used, I believe, to demonstrate Christ through us,” she said. “We have opportunities to bring people closer to Christ and be a reflection of who Christ is. I seek to do that in the work that I have in front of me. For me, it’s through education.”
Certain from an early age that she was called by God to be an educator, Anderson earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education, and later her doctorate, at Saint Louis University. She completed a master’s degree in educational leadership at University of Missouri – St. Louis.
Now, she’s working on a master’s degree in theology through NTS, because she considers the school district her congregation and she wants to give it her best leadership. As an educator herself, a seminary offering academic rigor was essential.
“The reputation of NTS certainly precedes itself,” she said. “It has a very strong reputation of producing great Christian leaders. I decided to be part of the program.”
Every NTS course during her first semester has spoken directly into her work, from the study of Jeremiah to a class on pastoral counseling, as well as a course focused on sabbath.
“All of the classes have been quite helpful for me at the right time to help guide the work and reflect on the work in the most meaningful ways,” she said. For instance, “Being superintendent of the fourth largest employer in this region, to have the number of people whose lives—especially during a pandemic—are relying on you, making sure to have that sabbath time, honoring God through that, has been very meaningful for me.”
The Jeremiah and pastoral counseling courses have equipped Anderson to walk with families and students through the pandemic’s pain and uncertainty, including when parents have lost jobs. She has also added team building exercises to her staff meetings modeled after activities in the pastoral ministry class.
Anderson’s conviction that her work is actually a ministry keeps her open to the Holy Spirit’s leading each day.
“I start every day saying God use me and guide me and lead me and order my steps. God leads and I follow.”
Interested in learning more about studying at NTS? Reach out to us at www.nts.edu/info.
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