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

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.“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:
  • Ensuring children reach their academic potential with equal access to high quality schools and the most talented principals and teachers
  • Replicating and expanding what’s working and stopping what’s not
  • Offering quality choices that are academically and financially sustainable
First steps were painful but necessary. Underperforming schools were closed. That included the superintendent’s own high school, Creston High. She kept the memories but closed the doors. Resources that were captured from the closed schools were reinvested into the schools that were performing well.

Teresa Weatherall Neal“Painful, but we did it with love,” says Weatherall Neal. “I wasn’t wedded to any of it. I stood before the public and took the hits. And yes, there were staff cuts, too.”

Jobs were eliminated. The central office and human resources department underwent an overhaul, focusing on talent retention, recruitment, and professional development. While underperforming schools were closed, K – 8 and theme schools such as C. A. Frost Environmental Science Academy were expanded, a neighborhood school reopened, and varsity athletic teams reduced from three to two.

Now, after nearly four years of Neal's smart, stabilizing leadership, the district is posting new numbers: an increase in graduation rates and ACT composite scores, a 30 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, and more than 800 parents registered for Parent University. After typically losing 400-600 students per year due to declining enrollment before the Transformation Plan, GRPS lost just 47 students during the 2014-2015 school year. 

“We have also implemented school uniforms districtwide,” says Weatherall Neal. “That was something parents requested. Rather than focus on fashion, we want our children to focus on academic achievement—and wearing uniforms has a way of equalizing everyone.”
 
In the Voice of Parents

While wanting to be involved as a business owner in the health of her community, Kris Spaulding had what she calls a skeptical eye when considering Congress Elementary School on Baldwin Street for her two children.

“We opened Brewery Vivant five years ago, and within the first year, we got involved with Congress,” Spaulding says. “We wanted to have a positive impact on our community, and several of our employees live here, too.”

Spaulding’s children, ages 2 and 4, are not yet old enough for kindergarten, but it wasn’t too early for Spaulding to get to know the school they were helping to support as a business.

Kris Spaulding“I met the principal, Bridget Cheney, and I told her about our concerns as parents,” Spaulding says. “A lack of discipline in school was scary to us, and we made a lot of assumptions. Talking to Bridget, we were won over. Her vision for the school, her approach to discipline matched our viewpoint.”

Spaulding became involved in the East Hills Loves Congress Initiative, a local support group for the neighborhood school overseen by the East Hills Council of Neighbors.

Jonathan (Jono) Klooster, parent of three and the economic development coordinator for the City of Grand Rapids, agrees.

“Everyone should take the time to explore their public school options. With all of the options available, the strong communities around some of these schools, and the good work being done at GRPS, most people, I believe, will find at least one great opportunity. You could be missing out on a great experience that will provide long-term benefits to not only your children, but also to you and your community.”

Klooster cites yet another reason he chose Congress for his children’s education: “My children will grow up with friends in their own diverse neighborhood, with kids who don’t necessarily look like them. That’s the foundation I want for them.”
 
A View from the Mayor’s Office

For twelve years, from 1991 to 2003, John Logie sat behind the desk of the mayor of Grand Rapids. He had the unique perspective of watching the ups and downs of GRPS over decades, and he is watching still.

“The school demographic has always been a mirror of the city of Grand Rapids,” Logie says. He points to changes in demographics, shifts in the economy, and bad hires for the downturn in the school system.

“Now we are seeing positive changes,” Logie says. “That’s because we finally looked for a homegrown hire.” Consulted for his input on candidates for the superintendent position in 2012, Logie says Weatherall Neal immediately stood out.

“Bad leadership was what made GRPS sink,” he says. “Good leadership is what is bringing it up again.”

With a millage coming up in November to support the next phase of the GRPS Transformation Plan, Logie says he supports passing it unequivocally. “It’s a good investment in our future. With the track record of this new superintendent, what she’s done in a short time, we need to do this for the next phase.”

More, Logie would like to see Grand Rapids move toward providing free tuition to higher education institutions to all who graduate from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“If I could wave my magic wand,” he says, “I’d like us to do here what Kalamazoo has done with the Promise.”

The Kalamazoo Promise is a pledge by anonymous donors to pay the full tuition at any of Michigan’s state colleges and universities for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools. Is anyone talking about a similar pledge in Grand Rapids?

The former mayor’s answer is firm: “Yes, and I’m one of them.”

City officials, GRPS teachers and staff, the superintendent, community members, parents of students and the students themselves all seem to be in agreement on one common vision, returned to Grand Rapids: education is the answer.
 
 
This special report was made possible with support from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for 
Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.

Photography by Adam Bird

 
Heather Gauck
Heather Gauck
Resource Teacher
Harrison Park School
IMG: What is your perspective as a teacher on the Transformation Plan?

Heather Gauck: Some very tough decisions had to be made with closing, consolidating and improving schools. The implementation of uniforms keeps the focus on academic achievement. When students are concerned about what outfit they have on, the focus is taken off learning. Also, as educators we have concentrated on teaching higher standards to prepare students to be college- and career-ready.  These initiatives have resulted in decreased absenteeism and increased graduation rates.

IMG: How have your students responded to these changes?

Gauck: My students have responded in a positive way to these changes. They have not complained about uniforms, and they have risen to the challenge of pushing higher standards in my classroom.

One success story is a student who when starting 1st grade could hardly make it through a morning without feeling frustrated and having a meltdown. With continued support through the use of technology and always having high expectations, she was able to start speaking louder and increase her self-confidence. Another story that stands out is the year before we implemented college and career readiness. I chose to wear my graduation cap and gown for Halloween. I was amazed at how many students had no idea what I represented. By the next year, after implementing college and career readiness, I was amazed at how many students recognized what I was wearing as a symbol of graduation.

IMG: You've been referred to as a "rock star in the classroom" because of your expertise in bringing technology into the classroom. What role does technology play in education today? 

Gauck: Technology is only a benefit if it is used as a tool to support the curriculum. As long as teachers are being provided with ongoing professional development and support then technology can do amazing things for education. By using the enormous variety of free technological apps and programs available, we can meet different learning styles. Many students who once did not have a voice due to difficulties in skills or lack of self-confidence can now have a voice!

IMG: What kind of technology do you use in your classroom?

Gauck: Five years ago I was given the opportunity to pilot four iPads in my resource classroom. Since then, through Donors Choose, I’ve been able to get a few more. Each iPad is assigned to 3 to 4 students which is not the ideal but we make do. Each student has individual sight words, stories and math programs that target the specific skills that he or she needs to work on. We even use recycled smart phones to listen to recorded stories or record their own. Students are excited and motivated to complete assignments when devices meet their needs.

IMG: How does the upcoming bond address technology upgrades and the importance of keeping up with those upgrades?

Gauck: Our teachers would welcome the opportunity to implement new teaching techniques if only we can have working devices. We do have four working computer labs in our school for 900 students.  This is better than some schools in our district but computer lab time a couple times per week is inadequate to meet the needs of 21st century learning.  Through the passing of this bond, we will get a much needed upgrade to technology in the schools that will improve the futures of our students and ensure that they can compete in the job market.