The atmosphere for the State of Schools address was one filled with hope, acknowledgement and gratitude as Board of Education (BOE) President Senita Laneer called attendees to their seats. All were treated to a performance of “Colors” and the Pledge of Allegiance by the Ottawa Hills High School JROTC. President Laneer then took time to acknowledge members of the BOE, elected official clergy, parents, students, faculty (past and present), tax payers and members of the community to stand and be given a warm round of applause saying, “ You are all very important to GRPS. You all should be applauded.”
Such was the tone for the rest of the State of Schools address. At her request, representatives of the Employee Group Leaders joined her on stage and took a few moments to be acknowledged and give their remarks on the effects that Neal's leadership has already sparked. There were frequently used words and phrases to describe the new administration, such as “hope," “pride” and “becoming a family." A particularly promising moment came when Paul Helder, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, poignantly noted, “This room is far from full -- but it is, because everybody knows where we are going. That is a phenomenal change.”
President Laneer graced the podium for a final time to present the main speaker, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall-Neal. “She hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped moving since her appointment," said Laneer when describing the tenacity that led to the January 3 appointment of Weatherall-Neal as interim superintendent and the work she has put in thus far. This work includes the now well-known listening tours, which allowed Weatherall-Neal to get out into the community and hear directly from those effected what was working and what wasn’t so that changes could be made. It was with much applause that our Superintendent moved towards the podium.
Keeping with the themes of gratitude and acknowledgement, Superintendent Weatherall-Neal began her time by first congratulating the Ottawa Hills basketball team and encouraging audience members to come out and support the team. Weatherall-Neal took a moment to publicly recognize that she would be unable to do the work that she does without the help of her amazing staff whom she then names, applauding them for all of their work efforts. Weatherall-Neal then gave an overview of the focus points that she would be addressing in her speech, in as much as she is addressing them in her time as the Superintendent:
1. Academic achievement
2. Professional development
3. Positive culture
5. Setting expectations
Superintendent Weatherall-Neal talked about the listening tours that helped her to define this list, noting that it is “our community, our children, and our city. We know what is best” when it comes to meeting the needs. The tours helped Weatherall-Neal identify what was going well, what was not going well and what needs to be done to make the change. She went on to identify some of things that were working, including such projects as the Institute for Learning (IFL), technological learning and community partnerships to name a few. Weatherall-Neal reminded the audience that the message with these partnerships is that “people in the community love you. We want you to succeed.”
Wanting to keep things fair and balanced, Weatherall-Neal also addressed what has not been going well within the district as well. Highlighted items included in this portion of the discussion were the elective hubs, which Superintendent Weatherall-Neal acknowledged were “not right.” She went on to say that “every student deserves to stay in their home schools and take their electives by our GRPS teacher -- not someone else,” which was met by thunderous applause. Other items mentioned were the blended learning rotation and the lack of enforcing the Uniform Discipline Code policy. Weatherall-Neal asserts that the issue with the discipline policy is not that the district doesn’t have one, but how it is implemented. “I’m asking everyone to be fair, firm, and consistent…. We have [the discipline code]; we just need to enforce it.”
The next phase of Superintendent Weatherall-Neal’s address was dedicated to the top ten list of areas that were identified through her listening tours as things that needed to be addressed first. Among those listed was the restoration of electives, developing a plan to restore/revitalize art, music and physical education in a comprehensive (preK-12) plan throughout the district; the elimination of the “H” grade; better customer service, treating people with respect while being “fair, firm and consistent" and having the majority of principals on staff by June 30 so that relationships between parents and staff can grow.
Weatherall-Neal brought the address to a close by discussing what plans are in place to move forward in the district for the communities' students, making note of a new academic plan that will go into effect in June 2013 with a directive to make the GRPS district a model for urban city schools. “Zip code should not determine the education," says Weatherall-Neal. She also rolled out a plan for monthly newsletter for parents, with tips, and asked for 200 volunteers to be deputized and help in the schools.
There was thanks to the community for the Warm, Safe, and Dry mileage from Weatherall-Neal, and she ended with an anecdote and her excitement about the first Senior Fair taking place at the end of this month that will allow Seniors to see what college options are out there for them. However, it was the story about a student who came up to her at a recent sporting event, and though he didn’t know exactly who she was, that summed up the theme of the morning. The student said, “ Hey, aren’t you mine?” to which Weatherall-Neal replied, “Yes, I am yours.”
Photo of Address courtesy of Richard App/StellaFly Social Media
Photo of Teresa Weatherall-Neal by Adam Bird Photography