The newly appointed Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) interim Superintendent lives up to all of the raving reviews: She is a team player; an advocate of the GRPS community, a force of stability and holds a clear vision and plan for the schools. Teresa Weatherall Neal is all of these things… and much more.
When asked how she was handling the first few weeks of her new appointment, Weatherall Neal smiles and refers to two prominent pieces of art work in her warm and inviting office. “Once I had these pieces in place, I was ready to go to work," she says. The artwork she refers to is a framed campaign poster of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The other piece of artwork is a pencil and paper sketch called “The Hand,” depicting an adult hand with two fingers being held by a child’s hand. “This reminds me to reach one, teach one," says the Superintendent, with overtones of pride and acknowledgment in her voice. “That is what I’m all about -- educating our children.”
Sitting down to discuss her plans for her time at the helm of the district, Weatherall Neal is never flustered as she expresses that “the focus is on doing what is best for the children.” With an energized plan working in conjunction with the established strategic plan to be rolled out this week, Superintendant Weatherall Neal plans to “honor and value the people: the students, the parents, and the employees of GRPS” by focusing on major themes including academic achievement, culture, collaboration, professional connections and overall development. “We have excellent educators in our district. Grand Rapids employees can go anywhere -- anywhere -- but they choose to stay here. We have to honor that.”
The passion and love that exudes from Weatherall Neal as she speaks about GRPS is akin to the way she boasts about her wonderful family. “I love the district, and it didn’t just start," she says.
Much like her 35-year working relationship with the district, Weatherall Neal has been happily married to her husband Dennis Neal for 35 years and counting. They take pride in their two daughters, who both work for the district, their son-in- law and two delightful grandchildren. It is her oldest grandchild, C.J., who has become the standard by which those working with Weatherall Neal do their work. “I have them ask the question, would the work that we are doing be the best for your grandchild, or mine?," she says. "That’s what we need to live up to. I will do anything for the district, just like I would do anything for C.J. It’s not about me -- that’s what makes it so easy to do the right thing.”
Weatherall Neal has had a life-long relationship with GRPS. She and her nine brothers and sisters grew up in the school system, hailing from Union St. where she started her education at age four attending the Franklin campus.
“I’ve always loved school,” says Weatherall Neal, as she retells stories about her days in the classroom under the tutelage of teachers who inspired her. She credits her foundational education at GRPS as part of what spurs her belief that “if you really want to help a child, teach them to learn. That is how you pay it forward.”
And Superintendent Weatherall Neal has been doing just that, paying it forward by way of getting out to the community with her listening tours to see how she can help teach our students. In much the same way that we open up our homes to family and friends, Weatherall Neal has opened her doors to anyone who wants to share their experiences or concerns with her. “I want to listen to the community and give them a voice,” she says. It is true that a relationship cannot grow if individuals don’t take time to listen and learn about one another, and it appears that Weatherall Neal is trying to build a relationship with the community of the GRPS district.
Not only is Weatherall Neal listening to the concerns of the district, she is praying for it just as she does with her own family. Weatherall Neal mentions how her daughters remember her including GRPS in their evening prayers. When they buy her gifts, they are usually related to the district in the form of apparel, art or the occasional keychain. The Superintendant sees GRPS as an extension of her own family, and the gift it gives to her is being able to do what she loves every day: promote the education of children.
Perhaps that love is what others see in her, and it has led to the Board of Education halting their Superintendant search and entrusting Weatherall Neal with an 18-month contract just three weeks into her new appointment. Senita Lenear, president of the Grand Rapids Board of Education, sums up the overall impact of Weatherall Neal's family-orientated outlook on the district in her remarks about the extension. "we certainly knew that Ms. Weatherall Neal was the right person, at the right time, when we appointed her interim Superintendent," Lenear says. "Now, based on the overwhelming response and feedback the Board has received, as well as Ms. Weatherall Neal’s leadership and approach to problem solving, it was clear that she is the right person for the longrun and deserves the time necessary to achieve her strategic goals.”