Thursday, September 17, 2015

Call it a comeback: Grand Rapids Public Schools on the upswing, poised to thrive

Call it a comeback: Grand Rapids Public Schools on the upswing, poised to thrive

When GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal took the helm, she instituted an ambitious Transformation Plan with an eye towards stabilizing the district, then enabling it to grow and thrive. Nearly four years later, the district is decidedly on the upswing. Get the stats and the stories behind the turnaround, and see where Neal is steering the ship next.

This is the first in a four-part series.

When Grand Rapids Superintendent of Schools Teresa Weatherall Neal was hired for her position almost four years ago, she began her new job by listening. She called it her listening tour, and she listened to everyone. Realizing they were being heard, perhaps for the first time, members of the Grand Rapids community had much to say.

People stopped the superintendent in the street to talk with her. They scribbled notes on the edges of napkins and passed them to her in restaurants. On the backs of store receipts, even on torn off pieces of cardboard, people wrote their suggestions and grievances and passed them to Weatherall Neal. Whenever possible, they bent her ear. She was approached on the street, in the grocery store, in the hallway. She always stopped to listen, and she read every note given to her.

Students leave the bus for the C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. (PHOTO by Adam Bird)
“I asked everyone, because everyone deserves to have a voice,” Weatherall Neal says. “I wanted to keep it simple, so I asked four questions: what’s working, what’s not, what are the barriers to success, and what are the solutions for improvement.”

Weatherall Neal gathered together all that she heard from community members, teachers, staff, students and their parents, and from that input, she created the GRPS Transformation Plan. The Grand Rapids Public Schools, after all, were in dire need of transformation. Enrollment had declined by 8,000 students. Graduation rates lagged at 47 percent and the drop-out rate was at nearly 20 percent. The budget had been cut by $100 million and 35 schools had been closed while half-empty hallways echoed in others.

How could one person possibly turn this sinking ship around?

Weatherall Neal is the first person who will tell you that it can’t be done by one person. It takes every person in the community doing his and her part, she insists. What she has brought to the village, however, provides leadership to the transformation.

“I have been with this district for 41 years,” Weatherall Neal says. “I love this district, always have. I grew up here, one of nine siblings. I went to school here, and I never felt the desire to leave.”

From Creston High School, Weatherall Neal went on to Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University. She worked in GRPS as a student worker, then a receptionist, then a secretary, a compliance officer, a director, and assistant to the superintendent, until she took that seat herself. She knew and relished each step on the ladder.

“I knew what greatness looked like,” Weatherall Neal says. “And I never left that, that we could be the best.”

The Labor Pains of Transformation

Under Weatherall Neal’s leadership, her team sifted out three goals for the Transformation Plan ...

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