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RapidChat: Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal

With GRPS's recent request for a $175 million bond for buildings, there is something that is much more paramount to their success that Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal is calling for from the city of Grand Rapids. "Come with me," she declares, encouraging all community members to come together with a united front. "You need to turn this community around. Come with me as one."
Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal

Beyond Grand Rapids Public School's recent request for a $175 million bond for buildings, there is something much more paramount to its success that Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal is calling for from the city of Grand Rapids. "Come with me," she declares, encouraging all community members to come together with a united front. "You need to turn this community around. Come with me as one." On the heels of her State of the Schools address, we get the inside scoop from this transformative school leader.
RapidGrowth: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us just as the city is abuzz with the state of GRPS schools in relation to the Transformation Plan that was implemented nearly two years ago.
Teresa Weatherall Neal: Yes. It started in the school year of 2013-14, and we are now in year two of the plan. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 41 months since I first started in this position. Since the transformation plan, we have really focused on educating the whole child. You pay taxes, you live in this community, and you have a voice. Come with me. You need to turn this community around. Come with me as one.
RG: The primary focus has been on the implementation of Phase I of the GRPS Transformation Plan. What were some of the primary objectives within that?
TW: In Phase I we wanted to have a focus on academic achievement, stabilizing the district, stopping the churn, and recruiting and retaining awesome and great staff. We are investing in what has worked, talent retention, and stability and growth.
RG: What do you feel were some of GRPS’s biggest successes during this phase?
TW: To start with, we have created our academic plan - which is huge. Because of it, test scores have gone up; there have been positive gains. In addition, we have connected our children with careers in this community, dual enrollment is up, there are summer programs, and there is a professional development plan for every member in GRPS. Graduation rates are up, we have had the best enrollment in two decades, and in every school ACT scores have gone up. City High was rated #1 school in Michigan, our Parent University is going well, and we have a partnership with Davenport University for urban education. That is just a snapshot.
RG: You've also been discussing Phase II plans. What are some of the primary goals and objectives within this specific part of the plan?
TW: Technology, updating our buildings, and continuing to focus on talent and recruitment for great staff members, which is why were asking for the bond. It’s time to take it to the next level.
RG: How does GRPS attract and retain talented teachers?
TW: One is communication. Marketing is huge. Our HR folks are going our to teacher fairs, and we finally have people in line. They are telling us “we have heard about Grand Rapids Public” – and that is huge.
RG: Goal number three of the District Improvement Plan states that it will support all school administrators and teachers in the Teacher Evaluation Process. How does it use data that demonstrates what is going on in the classroom?
TW: We look at the outcomes, data, professional development, and professional support. It’s not a “gotcha!” system; people know what we are going to evaluate them on. Specifically, we collect tripod data so students have a voice. Students get to do a survey, which Basis Policy Research has helped us with, which gives teachers feedback. From there, a conference with teachers and principals occurs. We believe this is a fair evaluation process to help us achieve our goal around academic achievement.
RG: I also understand GRPS is committed to using a Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) system to improve the learning environment of students. Can you speak to this a littler further since its implementation?
TW: A lot of people don’t understand this, but children respond to positive interactions. This is just pointing out great things, such as: “Its so nice to see you.” “We are glad to have you.” “I missed you.” There is so much negatively going on in this world, and we are able to say: “Thank you for using nice manners. Here’s a ticket.” In which the kids can turn their tickets in to obtain certain rewards, such as not wearing their uniform for one day, and we do ice cream socials as well.
RG: What is the center of your philosophy for learning platforms for GRPS? Is it technology-based or instructional based?
TW: Instructional based. In an urban school, technology is a tool. Our children need to have people; highly qualified adults that care about them and that are teaching them. There is a digital divide in systems that are here, but technology cannot replace what a human can. We need teachers who can care about these kids. Technology will never be able to do that.
RG: What efforts are being made to attract more middle class families back into the district?
TW: We are not seeking a certain class of people; GRPS is a school district for everyone. We have something for every single family, regardless of income and language. We try to focus on the individual kids here, which is why we have such a variety of classes. With theme schools, small schools, large schools, we are the absolute school district - not just urban. This is everyone’s district.
What we offer in Grand Rapids is diversity. Diversity on every level, whether you are rich, poor, or no matter your race. It’s about a group of people coming together for the whole. We all need to come together for that to happen, since education is for the good of all.
RG: What are some of the public-private partnerships the district is using to try to help students even outside of the classroom?
TW: Outside of the classroom we truly believe that this community has stepped up to help up educate our youth. Between the colleges and universities, Believe 2 Become, the Student Advancement Foundation, the banking program with the banks, and the 3Rs Program with the lawyers, there are so many partners in the philanthropic community that are changing the lives of these children. Even with field trips. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it. All of these experiences come together in order for these children to have a well-rounded education.
RG: City Middle/High School was just ranked as the top high school in the state, and the 83rd best high school in the country. Why do you think this is? What is different about this school?
TW: City is a test-in school – that is first. City also has a very rigorous curriculum. Parents that are involved and the kids are motivated. Those are all components that make schools successful. But, it is a test-in school. While City is one, we have other great schools. I am proud of the other schools as well.
RG: GRPS City High being named #1 high school in the state, within a district that often struggles with graduation rates and success overall, how do you get the rest of the district to achieve its potential?
TW: One of the things we are doing at all of our schools is having our principals gather around for professional development. We also have a new hiring process for our teachers, that is all about getting the right people in the right seat. We also have Parent University, because sometimes you have to teach the parents what the expectations are.
There are certain ways to do school. That is what we are teaching at. What is really important though, which is new since I became the superintendent, is that we have an academic plan. This drives everything we do in the district, pre-kindergarten through college.
RG: Any last things that you want the public to know about GRPS and the District Improvement Plan that they may not know about already?
TW: I am so grateful for the people in the community. Without all the stakeholders I couldn’t lead and do this work. We have accomplished a lot in the past 41 months and we’re not slowing down. We’re going to keep going.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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