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Stepping into leadership at a time of school change, social upheaval

New district chief assumes post July 1

On her way to becoming the new superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, Leadriane Roby ran into two storms: the coronavirus and the public outrage over George Floyd’s death.

That’s on top of completing her work as assistant superintendent of Richfield Public Schools in Minnesota and transitioning to her post at GRPS, which she officially begins July 1 but has been preparing for since being hired Feb.24 to succeed the retired Teresa Weatherall Neal.  

Just three weeks after her hiring, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closure of Michigan schools, followed shortly by those in Minnesota, forcing both Richfield and GRPS to adopt distance learning.

Meet the Superintendent, Virtually

What: Virtual Town Hall with Leadriane Roby

When: 2 – 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 30

Hosts: Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and The Economic Club of Grand Rapids

Register Online

Then came Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, for which a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes was charged with murder, followed by a huge rolling wave of protests across the nation and world.

Roby found herself at the eye of the storm in Richfield, a Minneapolis suburb, tending to the academic and emotional needs of her district’s 4,400 students, about 70 percent of them students of color. Many of them live not far from the intersection where Floyd was killed. 

“Starting in my own backyard, in the Minneapolis area, it has been a very tough spring,” Roby said in a Zoom interview. 

But she struck an aspirational tone even while acknowledging the emotional toll Floyd’s death and the protestors’ confrontations with police have taken on her students.

“I always want to believe in hope, and with that, change,” Roby said. “The events surrounding George Floyd and his death, and just even watching that, is nothing I ever want to get used to, nor do I want others to get used to, to see the violence around that. But this is an opportunity to really make some lasting changes, from the standpoint of, we cannot accept and feel like this is OK.”

Changes are coming fast as well to schools, and Roby said she is eager to begin implementing them as part of the GRPS leadership team. 

Leadriane Roby has been assistant superintendent of Richfield Public Schools in Minnesota

Working in Partnership  

Roby has been communicating daily with GRPS interim Superintendent Ron Gorman and other district administrators, as well as sitting in on virtual meetings of the Board of Education. Calling Gorman “a phenomenal partner,” she said she’s had input into the district’s planning for how to restructure schools come this fall, whether that be distance learning, in-school instruction or a hybrid of both. 

“We do anticipate school will look very different than what it has in the past,” said Roby, with Richfield since 2014 and a former administrator with Minneapolis Public Schools. “Ultimately it’s about, how do we engage our students in meaningful learning so they can continue to grow and thrive in this environment.”

She said GRPS and Richfield have handled the school closure in similar ways including distributing computer devices, work packets and providing meals. Here as there, some families have had problems accessing online work. 

GRPS has done “a solid job” so far, but now must strategically plan for making fundamental changes in how schools work, she said, noting GRPS is entering its 150th anniversary year. 

“We kind of paper-clipped the system together in a very short period of time, turning a 150-year system on its heels in a matter of two to three weeks. Now it’s time to do some long-range planning around ‘What does this look like?’ 

“We know that we are able to do it,” she added. “We’ve seen some of our barriers and hiccups. How do we provide support to ensure that learning still occurs?”

The district must also ensure that teachers have “confidence and competence” in how they deliver instruction, she said. 

‘A Seminal Moment’  

These challenges of teaching and learning come amid the social upheaval of the Floyd protests around police brutality and its impact on students. In Richfield, students have reached out to social workers and teachers for help with processing their emotions, Roby said. She called this a “seminal moment” of needed changes in “how we view our men, African American men in particular, and also how are we supporting our young people.” 

“Our students of color, our young boys are terrified, as they should be. There’s a sense of, ‘Am I next? Is this going to happen to me? Is this going to happen to someone I know?’” 

‘Ultimately it’s about, how do we engage our students in meaningful learning so they can continue to grow and thrive in this environment.’

– Leadriane Roby, new GRPS superintendent

The school system has connected families with community resources they can call on over the summer, she added: “We want to make sure we are providing a brave space … where people can be vulnerable and say, ‘I’m struggling with this, I need some help processing it.’”

Roby, 53, plans to arrive in Grand Rapids June 29 with her husband, Steven. They have found a temporary residence near the GRPS administration building on Franklin Street SE until they purchase a home. She looks forward to visiting school campuses, meeting with staff and exploring Grand Rapids. 

Citing the strong community support of schools she’s seen on her previous visits, she said, “I’m excited to help continue the energy around that and bring it to fruition. 

“I really want to get there and get to work in person.”

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Charles Honey
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 or email Charles.

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