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Dedicated educator overcame ‘life’s circumstances’ to lead GRPS

New superintendent tackles twin challenges of district, pandemic

Grand Rapids — For more than a quarter of a century, going back to her first teaching job in 1993, Leadriane Roby, the first-year superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, has had a guiding principle for her work in education.

“Life’s circumstances happen,” she says. “How do we prepare our young people for life’s circumstances?”

It has informed her work in the classroom, her work as an assistant principal and principal, her work as an assistant superintendent — and now her work at the helm of GRPS, Michigan’s eighth-largest public school district with just under 15,000 students and almost 1,100 teachers.

GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby

But it has also informed the life Roby has lived — a life filled with personal challenge, strong women role models and accomplished educators. Those influences helped prepare her to head a changing and demanding urban school district, which she was hired to lead in February.

As a young girl she moved from Missouri to Minnesota with her mother after her parents divorced. The Minneapolis area was where there was extended family, and her mom knew that support system would be needed.

Young Leadriane — it’s pronounced LEE-dree-in — adjusted to life’s circumstances, she says, thanks in large part to that support system. She loved school, and especially loved conversation-based classes as opposed to lecture-based ones.

She still remembers a math class at Central High School in St. Paul where, if the students were participating well during the week, the last 15 minutes of class on Fridays would be a time where the teacher and the students would tell jokes.

“It was kind of corny,” she says, “but he knew how to hook us. The students would hold each other accountable. During the week it would be ‘turn in your work, so we can have Joke Friday.'”

Dealing with Life’s Circumstances as a College Sophomore

After graduating from Central as a strong student at a very rigorous school, she headed off to Hampton University in Virginia, but returned to the Twin Cities because she was so homesick. She then transferred to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities but dropped out her sophomore year when she became pregnant.

It was a path she hadn’t planned on taking, but, she says, she had some critical capital in her corner as she again dealt with life’s circumstances.

“It may not have been easy,” she recalls, “but I’ve always had support. And I learned that you don’t do anything by yourself.”

Still, there were some hard lessons for Roby and her husband, Steven, along the way.

Leadriane Roby and Family   
• Dr. Leadriane Roby and her husband, Steven, were high school and college sweethearts. They have been married for 33 years.
• Their oldest child is daughter Tayler, who is 33, lives in Atlanta with her husband Eric and has a 3-year-old daughter Reese who, Roby says, is “the cutest and yep, that is my biased opinion!” 
• Their older son Julian is 26 and lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is coordinator for the Oversight Board for the City of St. Paul Human Rights Department. 
• Younger son Cedric is 23, and recently moved to Detroit where he is a first-year teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Roby and Gov. Whitmer with a socially distanced greeting at an August 2020 press conference on funding for schools hit hard by COVID-19

“I tried to work for a year-and-a-half,” she says. “My mother and mother-in-law were extremely supportive of Steven and me. They supported us but not too much. So, I was working three jobs: as a telemarketer, in the Kmart ladies’ department, and I sold Avon. 

“And I remember I paid the babysitter and had $12 left to last two weeks. And I said, ‘okay you have to get yourself back in school.’ I understood that having $12 to my name to last two weeks was not a good spot to be in.”

She found out that as a high-achieving high school student and a young mom, there were scholarships available to her that could make going back to college a reality.

Roby and her husband and high school and college sweetheart, Steven, ran a virtual 5K Turkey Trot to support GRPS student-athletes

Helped by a Purple People Eater

One was a Page Education Foundation scholarship, courtesy of a nonprofit founded in 1988 by former Minnesota Viking Alan Page  — one of the Purple People Eaters, the team’s four defensive linemen in the 1960s and 1970s who wreaked havoc on the NFL and whose motto was “Meet at the quarterback.” In addition to his on-the-field exploits, Page had earned a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School while still playing in the NFL and went on to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

And he and Roby share an important connection. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his presenter was Dr. Willarene Beasley, who had come to know Page when she served as principal of North Community High School where, she said, he had been a role model to her students during and after his time as a Viking.

Beasley is the older sister of Dr. Jacquelyn Sowell-Davis, the mother of Dr. Leadriane Roby.

“Both my mom and aunt have had a huge influence on who I am personally and professionally,” Roby says. “As a little girl, I was always with them, listening and watching how they navigated the professional world. They are my first mentors. I have mad respect for both these ladies.”

Roby’s mother began her career as a registered nurse in St. Louis, and transitioned to teaching and administration in a nursing program while earning a master’s and doctorate degree. She eventually moved into public school administration in Minneapolis Public Schools and retired as a principal.

Javier Cervantes of the GRPS communications team reads with Superintendent Leadriane Roby for district students and families in Roosevelt Park as part of an event with Read GR

‘I’m An Educator’

Both she and Roby’s aunt are still heavily involved in the Minneapolis/St. Paul community, volunteering at schools and church, and it is because of them, she says, that she went into education. Indeed, though it’s been a while since she was in the classroom, Roby still considers herself a teacher at heart.

Her career began in Minneapolis Public Schools in 1993 as an elementary school teacher. She then moved into a role there that included providing professional development and training for teachers and support staff before she transitioned to an assistant principal’s role in Minneapolis. That was followed by nine years as a principal in Covert Public Schools in Southwest Michigan. 

From there it was back to a principal’s post in Minneapolis Public Schools and then a dual role as both a building principal and assistant associate superintendent. Finally, she served six years as assistant superintendent of Richfield Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis before taking her new post in Grand Rapids.

“I’m an educator,” she says. “Sometimes my husband will say ‘Leadriane, I’m not in your classroom!’ I want people to get things. If we’re all on the same page, we can be learning.”

That’s why, she says, a comment last February by Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, meant so much to her.

‘I’ve tried to challenge myself to grow. If I’m not pushing myself, I’m not doing my job.’

— Superintendent Leadriane Roby

After the Grand Rapids Board of Education chose Roby, Bouwense told local media that she saw Roby as an educator, someone who understands the job of being a teacher.

“It meant a lot,” Roby says.

And in the midst of COVID-19, Roby’s understanding of and empathy for the teaching profession has grown even stronger.

“Teachers right now,” she says, “I give them all sorts of props. The creativity and innovation they have shown this year. Making connections with kids they have not even physically met. It’s been amazing.”

Roby has tried to model the same creativity and innovation as superintendent.

“I’ve tried to challenge myself to grow,” she says. “If I’m not pushing myself, I’m not doing my job.”

Plenty of Challenges Ahead 

That includes what is next for GRPS, as the district contends with financial, enrollment and achievement challenges in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.

“We’re doing lots of things well and have done them well,” she says. “Our achievement levels have increased, graduation rates have increased. The next level is what’s underneath that. As we peel the onion, where are we with subgroups? Where are we with Latino students, with special ed students? How are we making sure all students have a post-secondary plan? College might not be for everyone but having a plan should be.”

Her to-do list includes facilities and technology to optimize student learning.

“How are we connecting our students to the resources they need? How are we setting up our buildings and facilities so they are physically appealing, clean, up-to-date with state-of-the-art equipment?”

Roby also is casting an eye to how the district supports its teachers.

The Superintendent’s Faves

Movies: Roby says that “weirdly my favorite movies are Terminator 1 and 2,” adding: “These are the ONLY sci-fi movies that I have ever really liked. I especially liked ‘Terminator 2.’ I remember throwing my popcorn in the air when I realized Arnold was a good guy!”  

Books: She bemoans the fact that as of late she has not had a lot of time to dig into a good book for the pure joy of reading, but said that her plan over the winter to break is to read “Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. And, she added, “’Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’ by Judy Blume is a classic for me.”

Music: Her all-time favorite artist is Jill Scott, a singer-songwriter, poet and actress, and Minneapolis-based R&B band Mint Condition is a close second.

Roby was part of an August 2020 press conference with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on funding for state schools hit particularly hard because of COVID-19

Her doctorate from Western Michigan University is in Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, and her research focused on the teacher mentoring experience. Teacher preparation and support, she says, in turn shapes the academic experiences of students.

“Mentoring is something I strongly believe in,” she says. “I have had wise and sage teacher-leaders who took me by the elbow and helped me with the softer skills: how to engage with families, working in a team. I am thankful that I had really strong mentors and thankful for people who demonstrated what it means to have a coachable spirit.”

Zooming with the Unicorns

She is also thankful for a group of black, female Ph.D. holders in the Minneapolis area who head up educational institutions. She still stays in touch with them via a monthly Zoom. They call themselves “the unicorns” because of their perceived rarity, and Roby’s face lights up and her voice grows animated when she talks about this group.

“We could let our hair down and be ourselves,” she recalls. “We could talk about aggressions we experienced, and it was a safe space to have that dialogue. Society is not always willing to accept women in leadership and especially black women in leadership. Being in leadership can be isolating at times. When you are the person making decisions, or the face of a decision, the attacks may come.”

Roby says she turns to her faith in times of trouble, and the story behind her colorful first name, given to her by her paternal grandmother, is that it has biblical origins — though she has not been able to verify that and has never met another Leadriane.

“If I ever do,” she says, “I would be so excited to learn if the name really is biblical or to have them shed light on the name’s origin.”

In the meantime, she has work to do in a district that will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2021. She heads into the new year having been rated “highly effective” by the board in early December in their first formal evaluation of her.

“As a board, we are happy to have Dr. Roby on our team,” board President Kristian Grant told SNN. “She has consistently shown up for her students and staff in one of the hardest years we have seen. Although there are still some tough decisions to be made for the district, I am confident that we have chosen the right leader to guide the process.” 

Roby is confident too, and she heads into 2021 knowing that life’s circumstances will happen — and that she’s prepared to handle them.

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

Out supporting the Union High School football team, one of a number of appearances at district events Roby made this fall
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and also is a general assignment reporter and the point person for the SNN Facebook and Twitter feeds. He hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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