Topeka superintendent on furthering the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Topeka, Kansas — Home-delivered birthday gifts and cake aren't generally part of a school curriculum, but Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson rarely sticks to a lesson plan when there's a child in need.

"If we don't do it, who will?" Anderson asks.

The district at the center of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, is now helmed by its first Black female superintendent. Friday marks the 70-year anniversary of that historic Supreme Court decision.

"I think, 70 years later, I live with the privilege to help their hopes and dreams come to life," Anderson said of those who fought to overturn the "separate but equal" policy in schools. "I'm standing on their shoulders. If it were not for the plaintiffs of the Brown case."

The district's high school graduation rates have skyrocketed from about 70% to 91% during Anderson's eight-year tenure. She also established morale boosting programs — like graduation ceremonies for students in a nearby state correctional facility.

She's also revolutionized post high school opportunities for her students. Through a partnership with a local health center, students can take classes and get certified in things like phlebotomy, and they are even guaranteed jobs after they graduate.

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

"It's not really hard to get people on board when they know that you care, and they know they can be part of something pretty incredible and transformational," Anderson told CBS News.

Anderson speculates that fear could be the reason these changes aren't taking place on a larger scale in the U.S.

"Fear can make you choose not to accept other people, fear can shut down systems in a way like nothing else can," Anderson said.

Now, the historic district is transforming once again, this time opening its doors to refugees and migrants.

"Just because somebody 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 in either not being able to come, or stay in situations in their countries that are dire."

Anderson says there is a throughline running from 1954 to today of families coming to the U.S. in search of what parents 70 years ago fought for.

"The connection is, they all are looking for a better and 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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