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History-making superintendent comes back home to lead Godfrey-Lee

Veteran educator places prime value on relationships

Godfrey-Lee — Godfrey Lee’s new superintendent, Arnetta Thompson, originally thought she wanted to be a physician. 

In a biology class at Tennessee Technological University, Thompson said one of her professors noticed her patience while working with lab partners and asked if she ever considered becoming a teacher.

After deciding to switch her career path, Thompon completed her bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a concentration in biology at Tennessee Tech, before continuing her education: a master’s in educational leadership from Western Michigan University; an educational specialist degree from Grand Valley State University; and a doctorate of philosophy from Eastern Michigan University. 

“My mom told me, ‘Maybe God intended you to be a different kind of doctor in the end,’” Thompson said of her Ph.D. credentials. 

‘I’ve been in a whole lot of positions in my 32 years and have learned that relationships matter. People have to know you care and that you’re embedded.’

—  Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Arnetta Thompson

‘I’m Here Until I’m Not’

In the fifth change in district leadership since former Superintendent Kevin Polston left in 2021 to lead Kentwood Public Schools, Thompson assumed her new role in July. She is the first Black superintendent and first woman to lead Godfrey-Lee, according to district historian and former Superintendent David Britten. 

Interim Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer succeeded Polston and served until Mike Burde assumed the role in January 2022. Burde stepped down in February of this year and the district brought back Weeldreyer to serve as interim until Thompson, formerly the superintendent of the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, was selected by the school board in June

“I’ve been in a whole lot of positions in my 32 years and have learned that relationships matter,” Thompson said. “People have to know you care and that you’re embedded. I am here until I’m not.” 

Superintendent Arnetta Thompson, second from the right, stands with her Godfrey-Lee colleagues and state Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, left of Thompson (courtesy)

In the weeks leading up to the start of this school year, Thompson met with families, teachers and administrators and attended a few soccer games. She is also learning Spanish, to better communicate with multilingual students and their families. 

“I think it’s important to have authentic conversations, and if I need to learn something I’m proactive in trying to do that,” she said. “It’s one of my goals to be seen in buildings, showing up and allowing people to see that I’m really invested.”

Thompson quoted author, podcaster and professor Brené Brown when she said, “Clear is kind.”

She continued: “We want everyone in our district to know what our goals are and how we’re leveraging the strategies we have to accomplish those goals. There should be total alignment in expectations down from me through our teachers.” 

Coming Back Home  

An Ottawa Hills High School graduate, Thompson is no stranger to greater Grand Rapids, and is focusing her efforts on building trust with the Godfrey-Lee community. 

“I was born and raised in Kent County, so this district is an extension of my home,” she said. “Right now my goals are to pause and focus on what’s on our plates right now and what the district does really well. I need to gain that trust.” 

Thompson taught for six years as a ninth- and tenth-grade biology, life science and pre-algebra teacher at Wooddale High School in Memphis City Schools. She spent another six years teaching various grades and subjects in Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

During her 20 years total serving GRPS, Thompson held multiple administrative roles as athletic director/assistant principal, instructional assistant principal and K-8 principal. She also served as elementary curriculum specialist for Muskegon Public Schools. 

Thompson said having a range of experience with different grades taught her two important lessons: “There is always something new to learn, and students just want to be heard and valued, even when it’s not always evident.” 

She said she remembered feeling nervous when she first became a principal for younger students. 

“After my first week, I got a hug every day and realized this is going to be great,” she said. 

Outside of the office, Thompson enjoys spending time with her husband of 30 years, Willie, their two daughters and three grandsons. When she’s not cheering on Lee Legends sporting events, Thompson watches college football, specifically supporting the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

“I’m a big movie buff,” Thompson added. “I’m obsessed with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Anytime it comes on, my husband leaves the room because I know all the words and will recite them during the movie.”

Read more from Godfrey Lee: 
Muskegon Heights superintendent tapped to lead Godfrey-Lee
Beaded bracelets connect third-graders with their moods

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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