GRPS Superintendent Sees Vision of Greatness Coming into View

Teresa Weatherall Neal says she is “committed to Grand Rapids”

Editor’s note: As the 2014-15 school year is about to conclude, School News Network invited Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal to reflect on the state of Grand Rapids Public Schools. Here, in the first of two installments, Neal looks back on the past school year and on her personal history with the school system. Read part two of the interview.

The interview was conducted before the Board of Education passed the 2015-16 budget.   

Transformation in Progress

The GRPS Transformation Plan was launched in 2013 as a comprehensive effort to stabilize and improve Grand Rapids Public Schools. Its goals include raising academic achievement, improving the learning environment and establishing a culture of high expectations and accountability. The district is now embarking on Phase II, which includes opening new schools and expanding existing ones.

For more details: Transformation Plan

It is the last day of school for Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Teresa Weatherall Neal is on her game. She has been up since 4 a.m., sending out emails and getting ready to go as another school year winds to a close. She went to a graduation the night before, has two this night and five the next day.

“I have butterflies, just like kids,” she says with a big smile. “I’m excited for them … as excited as I was on the very first day of school.”

Along with the excitement, however, Neal has plenty to be concerned about. She faces a tight budget for the coming school year, which required the elimination of 46 positions (mostly through unfilled vacancies) to close an $8 million budget deficit. The teachers’ union and other bargaining units are negotiating new contracts. And despite dramatic improvements she detailed in her recent State of the Schools address, she heads a large urban district with its attendant challenges of poverty, funding and student achievement.

But Neal seems undeterred by the challenges — which include taking a $175 million bond request to voters in November.

She speaks with confidence and passion about the school system she herself grew up in and has worked for since high school. And she proudly outlines the gains made since she was named superintendent in January 2012, launched community meetings and led the school board’s adoption of a Transformation Plan for district-wide improvement.

That plan has indeed transformed the district, she says, from improved test scores and attendance to the best fall and spring student count days in 20 years. Instead of losing 400 students last fall as projected, GRPS lost less than 30, and gained students in the spring count.

Financially, she and other officials point to the district’s improved bond rating, and its ranking as the second-most financially efficient large school district in the country according to WalletHub, an online resource for consumers and businesses.

“When I started this job 3 ½ years ago, I saw the vision,” Neal says. “I knew that we could get there. But to have so many other people now see it, I love that feeling. It’s just great for our kids, for our staff, to see what we can do as a community.”

SNN: What is this like for you on the last day?  

It’s a mixed emotional day for me. It’s kind of sad when my kids leave me for the summer. When you don’t have contact with kids for almost three months, especially children that live in poverty, so much can happen. I want to make sure they’re OK. I want to make sure that you’re not just sitting at home watching TV. I want you to be engaged in this community. Go to the museum, go to the zoo. There’s so many things you can do.

In your State of the Schools address, you said when you first took this job you were “scared sleepless.”

It’s funny, because I was the assistant superintendent for Bert Bleke. When you’re that close to the seat, and when you’ve been in a district for as long as I’ve been here, you know what you’re inheriting. It’s not like a new superintendent coming in. I KNEW the uphill climb that I had. And knowing that, I knew I was going to have to have a transformation plan.

‘We are the chosen people to do this work. And we’re going somewhere. It is working.’

It’s hard to close schools. I knew that people were emotionally attached to their school. I also knew I had to stop the churn to provide stability. [Some schools had different principals every year for five-plus years.] That’s painful. Because in order to stop the churn, you have to get the right people in the right seats. I love these employees. But I knew that we had people that were wonderful people but just couldn’t move forward. I wasn’t the kind of person to allow someone else to do the hard work. I was going to look people square in the eye and say, “You know what, it isn’t anything against you. It’s just not the right place for you.”

I knew what I had to do in order to turn this around. I knew we were great at one time, so I knew what greatness looked like.

When you talk about when we were great, when are you talking about?

I’ve always loved the system, but I wanted people to love Grand Rapids Public Schools like I did. There was a time people would say they didn’t want others to know they worked for Grand Rapids Public Schools. I never felt that. If I close my eyes, I can smell my kindergarten classroom at Madison Park. We had cardboard blocks, and I know that smell. I know what the milk cartons smell like. Every day of my life, I’ve loved Grand Rapids Public Schools. When I no longer feel this excitement and this love, it’s time for me to go. I’m blessed to come to work, every day.

Looking back on this school year, how do you feel about how things have gone?

We’ve had a great year. It’s just a blessing to see everything come together, when you have so many moving parts. … I’m pleased with the movement. Our graduation rate is up. Our attendance is up. Our enrollment is up. Our test scores are up. We have created a stability that was not seen in many, many years. Our bond rating is up. We have people on a waiting list to join our schools. We have people standing in line when we go to recruit new employees.

‘I don’t want your zip code to determine your outcome in Grand Rapids. I want every school to be great.’

[After receiving a 95 percent approval rating on her Board of Education evaluation, extending her contract by a year to 2017, Neal says she sent a letter to all her staff.] I thanked them, because it’s all of us together. I may be leading the pack, but you can’t move the lives of 18,000 kids without great people behind you. We have almost 4,000 employees. The majority of them, boy, I’d take with me anywhere.

We are the chosen people to do this work. And we’re going somewhere. It is working. It is our parents, it is our students, it’s all of us together. Once we all roll in the same direction, we can move mountains in this community. We’re Grand Rapids. I grew up here, so I know what GrandRapidians can do.

Are there a couple things that stand out that speak to the turnaround that is happening here?

One for sure is the enrollment. I have a wait list for many schools, and I’m going to have to do a lottery. I’m not going to be able to take everyone.

The other thing is, I see the growth (in) academic achievement. I never doubted that these kids could do it. You have to create the conditions for these children to learn. And we’re finally doing that. We’re not where we need to be. But we’re not where we were, either.

Those two things are very fulfilling for me, to see that we’re doing right by children, and that people want to join this movement. Because the more people that come to the system, the better it is for all of the children. Everyone wins. Education is a social good. It is about economic development.

The enrollment you mentioned: highest [single-day] count in 20 years. That’s huge. How do you feel about that?

I feel really good. We have great programs. We can match individual students and their needs and their desires. I think that’s really important, that we are able to offer choice. I wanted to have the best portfolio in the state of Michigan, and I continue to build that portfolio. I want to be the best district. I don’t want your zip code to determine your outcome in Grand Rapids. I want every school to be great. If you want a neighborhood school, that’s great. If you want a theme school, that’s great. You like the environment? Great, we give you that. You want IB [international baccalaureate]? We can give you that. Then I have left seats for people outside of the district, 15 percent. Because people in the county should be able to share in our greatness as well.

You said the graduation rate was up 5 percent over the last three years.

It is 10 percent for African-American students as well as Hispanic students. We are up overall 5 percent across the district. (In) the graduation for tonight and tomorrow, my numbers will be even higher.

And of course, City High is very high, 97.

They should be, they’re tested in.

But according to the statewide compilation [by the Michigan State Budget Office], Union was 56, Ottawa was 53, Grand Rapids as a whole was 49.5.

The difference with that is, we have the jail [schooling for detained students]. We have all the special education for the county. We have our alternative education program [non-traditional high schools whose rates are included in the base high school rates]. I’m not complaining about these children. But when you remove the alternative education as an umbrella, our percentages are higher than the state average. It’s all in how you calculate.

Given these factors you’re talking about, where do you want to see those numbers go?

I don’t think we can be satisfied until we graduate every student from every program, and we no longer need the Kent County Jail in the Grand Rapids Public School district. Young people should not be detained and have to get their education behind bars. I just don’t think that’s the best place for kids. I think it’s a great thing we have a program, but I would love to see those young people remain in their comprehensive high schools to get their education.

‘Education is a social good. It is about economic development.’

I would love get to the place – and who knows when we’ll get there – when you have young people who are in school, want to be in school, focused on graduation, so you’re not doing whatever you’re doing with mischief. That’s where I would love to see us get to – where we graduate every student that comes in our high school, with their cohort. You don’t need a fifth- and sixth-year senior. Do it in four years. That fifth and sixth year should be around college, a middle college program, something like that. It should be around positive stuff.

CONNECT

Superintendent Neal’s State of the Schools address

Superintendent Neal’s GRPS web page

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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