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70 years later, Topeka’s first black female superintendent seeks to continue the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Topeka, Kansas — Birthday gifts and home-delivered cakes aren’t usually part of the school curriculum, but Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson rarely sticks to a lesson plan when a child is in the need.

“If we don’t do it, who will?” Anderson asks.

The district at the center of the monument 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which banned racial segregation in schools, is now led by its first black superintendent. Friday marks the 70th anniversary of this historic Supreme Court decision.

“I think 70 years later, I live with the privilege of helping their hopes and dreams come to life,” Anderson said of those who fought to overturn the “separate but equal” policy in schools . “I stand on their shoulders. If it weren’t for the plaintiffs in the Brown case.”

The district’s high school graduation rates climbed from about 70 percent to 91 percent during Anderson’s eight years in office. She also implemented morale-building programs, such as graduation ceremonies for students at a nearby state correctional facility.

She also revolutionized post-secondary opportunities for her students. Through a partnership with a local health center, students can take classes and earn certification in fields like phlebotomy, and they’re even guaranteed a job after graduation.

In a district where 46 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, Anderson installed washers and dryers in schools and opened food and clothing pantries.

“It’s not really hard to get people involved when they know you care, and they know they can be part of something pretty incredible and transformative,” Anderson told CBS News.

Anderson speculates that fear might be the reason these changes aren’t happening on a larger scale in the United States.

“Fear can cause you to choose not to accept others, fear can shut down systems like nothing else can,” Anderson said.

Today, the historic district is being transformed again, this time opening its doors to refugees and migrants.

“Just because someone doesn’t speak English doesn’t mean they’re less valuable to a community,” said Pilar Mejía, director of cultural innovation for Topeka Public Schools.

Students from more than 40 countries have enrolled in the district.

“It would be tragic,” Mejía said of where some of these families would be without their help. “They might end up not being able to come or staying in dire situations in their countries.”

Anderson says there is a series of families coming to the United States, from 1954 to today, seeking what their parents fought for 70 years ago.

“The connection is that they’re all looking for a better, brighter future,” Anderson said. “They’re all hoping for something better for their lives. We’re dealing with families who want more for their children.”


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