When she considers her proudest moments as superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools these past seven years, Teresa Weatherall Neal thinks of a 7-year-old girl who came up to her at a grocery store and asked, “Are you my granny’s friend?”
|What: Community farewell celebration for retiring Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal |
Where: Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. SW
Open to the public
When Neal said no, the girl asked if she was her auntie. No again. The girl persisted, “You’re something to me.” Neal answered, “Well, I’m your superintendent.”
“She felt a kinship with me,” Neal recalled warmly. “She knew it was someone that cared. That meant something to me as a black woman, that she would think I was her granny’s friend.”
Neal brought the scene to mind as she reflected on her tenure as GRPS superintendent, which ends with her retirement June 30. The squeals of youngsters on recess at nearby Campus Elementary School drifted through her window as Neal said how much she’ll miss the students she calls “my children.”
“I’ve believed in these kids right from the very beginning,” she said, sitting in her half-emptied office recently. “I know they have worth, they have value, they can do wonderful things.”
She said she’s sought to help those kids believe in themselves as much as she does, in leading the 16,000-student district that she herself entered as a 4-year-old in 1963. She went on to work for GRPS for 44 years, starting as a student worker from Creston High. Now with two grandchildren attending GRPS, she’s retiring not just from a job, but from a place where she’s spent most of her life.
“It is more of my life than anything else is,” said Neal, who turns 60 in July. “All I’ve ever known is Grand Rapids Public Schools, but also the city of Grand Rapids. I’m struggling with it a little bit, this idea of being separate from the district.”
A Knack for Fixing Problems
Yet she leaves GRPS excited about its future and confident that gains will continue under Ron Gorman, recently named interim superintendent on a one-year contract. Neal said she wanted him to be her successor and that the district is “in awesome hands with Ron,” an assistant superintendent with extensive district experience.
Neal herself started out as an interim in January 2012 to replace former Superintendent Bernard Taylor, before being named to the permanent post later that year. Tony Baker, the current board’s senior member, recalled going to Neal’s house with then-board President Senita Lenear to see if she would serve as interim leader of a district suffering from low morale, constant churn and poor public perception.
“Teresa just had an incredible analysis of everything that needed to happen at Grand Rapids Public Schools,” Baker said. “She knew exactly what the problems were, and she had a sense of what the solutions would be.”
Neal promptly set about finding those solutions, starting with a community listening tour aimed at determining what was working and what wasn’t. That led to adoption of the Transformation Plan, a comprehensive overhaul that closed, consolidated and created schools, expanded choices and took aim at low graduation and high dropout rates.
By being honest about the district’s problems, genuinely listening and bringing community players together, Neal led the district to become “an urban public-school success story,” Baker said. “She brought people together to create a school system that people in the community think is good, and is a national example.”
Innovations for Lasting Change
Museum School is the most visible example of innovation under Neal, who brought together university and city partners to create a nationally recognized program. But Baker cited Innovation Central High School as more typical of Neal’s know-how by consolidating career academies from different high schools into one thriving program with a 90 percent graduation rate. Such successes contributed to the “reinvention of Grand Rapids,” he said.
Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association representing 1,350 teachers and other professionals, said the high-profile theme and innovation schools have helped retain and attract families, and she credited Neal with improving community perception of GRPS. However, many of the traditional schools don’t get the same resources as those that “make the billboards,” she said, and their teachers face bigger class sizes with less support.
“We have a lot of schools that are struggling,” Bouwense said. “It’s kind of a have and have-not district.”
Neal acknowledges the need for continual improvement, citing ever-greater demands on teachers and parents and more barriers for students. But she points to walkable neighborhood schools as a point of pride: “I like that people in a neighborhood can have their school.”
Other highlights she cites include: establishment of GRPS as a Promise Zone qualifying graduates for college scholarships; a nearly 60 percent increase in graduation rates; revived athletic and arts programs; student tours of historically black colleges and universities; more students taking college dual enrollment courses; and a thriving preschool program.
‘I gave it my all. Did I always have the answer? Nope. But I never intentionally set out to do anything but good.’ – Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal
These and more have put many graduates on “a path for greatness,” she said: “The changes we’ve made, the growth that we have seen, will change generations.”
As for the criticism she weathered over the GRPS special education program, Neal said she understands how emotionally charged it was for the community. But she stands by her decisions, which she says were informed by her own sister’s experience as a special education student.
“Whether people think we did it right or wrong, it was always with the best intention around children,” she said firmly. “I was going to do what was best for children.”
|Voices of Community Partners|
The success and prosperity of our city is directly connected to and intertwined with the success of our public school system. It has been a true joy and privilege to work closely with Teresa as she is a passionate, dedicated and authentic leader. Her love for children in our community and her unwavering commitment to creating the best public school system in the country has led to a restoration of confidence in GRPS, rich learning experiences for children and significant positive outcomes for students. Her leadership has been instrumental in moving GRPS forward and I will miss working with her.
Doug DeVos, Amway board co-chair, who with the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation supports Leading Educators, Parent University, GR8 Sports Great Kids and other programs:
Teresa is a visionary, a collaborator, and someone who inspires all who are around her. She was the right leader at the right time to lead the transformation of Grand Rapids Public Schools – a transformation that will have a positive impact on this community for decades to come. It has been a blessing to be one of many who have had the joy of collaborating with Teresa as she took her bold vision and turned it into reality. It’s hard to not follow someone like Teresa. She is dynamic – someone who inspires all around her to do better, to think bigger and to give it all that they have.
‘Rally to These Kids’
In all of her work she’s benefited from key community supporters such as the Steelcase, Frey and Doug and Maria DeVos foundations and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss – not to mention the city voters who approved a $175 million bond issue in 2015. Neal said she’s been gratified to see “the community believe in Grand Rapids Public Schools like I do.”
“It’s hard to change the thought pattern and belief, but they did,” she said of GRPS supporters. “People believe in this district, which is what I want. I want them to rally to these kids.”
She plans to keep rallying to the kids of GRPS by volunteering at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy, where her grandson C.J. is a student. She’ll continue serving on boards including the VanAndel Education Institute, the Gerald R. Ford presidential board and the School Finance Research Collaborative, a funding reform group. And she intends to keep working with other Kent County superintendents to benefit children.
“I want to help the community to continue. This is a wonderful community. … Anything I can do, I will be the biggest cheerleader for you guys.”
But first, she will take a vacation to the South with her husband, Dennis, meeting up in Myrtle Beach with their children, Denishea and Natasha, and grandchildren C.J. and Layla. Then comes her new life of not being part of Grand Rapids Public Schools. “I don’t know who that girl is,” she said with a laugh.
What she does know is that she is satisfied with the work she did, doesn’t regret any decision she made, and that she always did what she said she would do.
“I gave it my all,” she said. “Every day I gave 100 percent. Did I always have the answer? Nope. But I never intentionally set out to do anything but good.”
She hopes all her work made a difference for the students of GRPS, from that 7-year-old girl at the grocery store to this year’s graduates.
“I hope I’ve instilled in them that there’s nothing they can’t do, if they put in the work. That’s my fear, that when I walk away I didn’t have enough time to instill that deeply enough in them, to know they can overcome anything, any obstacle.
“I hope they believe it enough.”