State of the Schools: Sustain, Partner, Persevere

Teresa Weatherall Neal

Throughout her recent State of the Schools speech, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal repeatedly referred to “the GRPS way.” And she repeatedly made it clear that in Grand Rapids, the way schools improve is by educators and community partners working together as a family.

Asserting the district has “transformed” since she began her tenure in January 2012, Neal said upward trends in attendance, graduation rates, parent involvement and other positives have come about through total community effort.

New Things Happening in GRPS

In her State of the Schools speech, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal announced several new initiatives in Grand Rapids Public Schools. They include:

  • A Middle Years College Program with Grand Rapids Community College starting in 2017. Beginning with Ottawa Hills High School but eventually districtwide, GRPS students will be able to graduate with a high school diploma and as associate’s degree from GRCC in five years
  • A $15 million private capital campaign to be kicked off later this year in partnership with the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. It will go toward renovations of the old Public Museum building at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE and the fourth floor of the Van Andel Museum Center for the GRPS Museum School, and for a new International Baccalaureate program at Coit Creative Arts Academy.
  • A “Bring Our Kids Home” campaign to recruit some of the 7,000 students who live within school district boundaries but do not attend GRPS. The effort will include”house parties” of parents and principals, visiting beauty salons and barber shops, and using social media
  • An expansion of the Grade School to Grad School program for African-American males to all female students, beginning next fall. The program pairs adult mentors from the community with students to provide support and guidance

“Make no mistake – there isn’t one person, one plan, one project, one silver bullet that has gotten us to this point,” Neal told an audience of school and civic leaders at Ottawa Hills High School. “It’s all of us together. And we can’t afford to say someone else is going to come and do it. No – we all need to do it.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools is doing remarkable things thanks to dedicated teachers, staff and students, Neal said, but also through partnerships with city officials, foundations and community organizations as part of the district’s Transformation Plan. Her 48-minute speech recognized such groups for helping make GRPS “strong, stable and on the rise.”

“We’ve made a difference for kids,” she told the crowd. “Generations will be changed because of all of you.”

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss returned the compliment, introducing Neal as a strong, “no-nonsense” leader with a “huge heart and unwavering commitment” to do what’s best for children.

“She will fight, and I mean fight, for what she believes is needed to support the children and families of GRPS,” Bliss said.

Building Sustainability into the Culture

Bliss and the city are fighting alongside Neal and GRPS – as are many community groups — to help its nearly 16,500 students succeed in an increasingly thriving city.

City and schools are teaming on an environmental initiative, partly funded by a National League of Cities partnership with Children & Nature Network, which aims to engage students with nature through city parks. GRPS also will help the city increase its tree canopy by 40 percent through plantings on school property, and all classrooms are installing recycling bins.

“How do we take all these sustainability goals that we have for our city and really start to teach children about them, whether it’s recycling and the value of trees or conservation of water?” Bliss said. “It’s time we really build that into our culture.”

A strong partnership between GRPS security staff and city police mentors students to prepare them for possible city employment, Bliss added.

Neal highlighted several other school-community partnerships, including:

  • A $50,000 grant from the Dyer Ives Foundation to help incorporate energy-efficient LEED standards into renovation of the former Grand Rapids Public Museum at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE into the new Public Museum High School.
  • A comprehensive pre-K through 12 academic plan and literacy continuum, a review of effective teaching and curriculum, and a leadership development program for teachers and administrators at Harvard University. The three-pronged initiative is supported by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation.
  • A “GR8 Sports, Great Kids” campaign, launched in February, in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. It aims to raise more than $500,000 annually to provide K-8 afterschool sports opportunities for all GRPS students.
Superintendent Neal and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss have worked closely on school-city cooperative projects

Game-changing Partnerships

Neal also pointed to ongoing partnerships yielding strong results: an attendance-boosting effort that hasreduced chronic absenteeism by 25 percent, and the strong growth of Parent University, both supported by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and Believe 2 Become; a summer literacy program funded by industrialist John Kennedy; and the Challenge Scholars program, backed by $32 million from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which promises college tuition to future graduates of Union High School.

The latter was recently expanded to provide up to two tuition-free years at Grand Rapids Community College for all Union ninth-graders who graduate with a 2.0 beginning in 2020. The expansion complements the existing Challenge Scholars program, which provides for four years of tuition-free college for those who attend Westwood Middle and Harrison Park schools and go on to Union High.

“These are all game-changers for poor children,” Neal said. “It’s going to make a difference.”

Community groups like these will help GRPS become the “best urban mid-sized district” in the country, Neal vowed. While acknowledging overall graduation rates must improve, she also touted rises for African-Americans, Hispanics and English-language learners – and proudly noted the acceptance to Harvard by City High student Henry Atkins.

“In Grand Rapids, we have the will, we have the knowledge, we have the grit to make this happen,” she said of continued improvements.

Board of Education President Tony Baker credited Neal with leading a culture change in GRPS largely through enlisting community support. Coming in at a time when public schools were under attack and GRPS administration-teacher relations at a low point, Neal shifted negative energy “toward working together,” Baker said.

While acknowledging ongoing contract-talk difficulties with employee groups – which Neal also acknowledged to support staff in attendance – Baker said Neal’s leadership and roots in Grand Rapids have helped the district make gains even through rough budget times.

“She knew who the community was, and what they could contribute, and that she wanted to engage them,” Baker said. “She said to the community, ‘We value you and we want you to be a part. Bring your talents and resources to us and we’ll make use of them.’

“It was a community that wanted to do that.”

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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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