The comeback kids: How Grand Rapids Public Schools are making a dramatic turnaround

For years, Grand Rapids Public Schools seemed to be sinking. Now, that's all changing. GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal explains how, and why, the district is improving — and where it needs to go.
When Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal took the stage to deliver her first “State of Our Schools” address at Ottawa Hills High School five years ago, the district was in serious disrepair.

For years, it had been hemorrhaging hundreds of students annually. Large high schools were operating at half their capacity. Graduation rates hovered around 44 percent. Morale among educators and staff continued to plummet. Some teachers hadn’t received pay increases in years. The school system was getting slammed in the Grand Rapids Press; philanthropists didn’t want to invest in the district; parents were moving out of the area or sending their children to private and charter schools.

But, in front of parents, students and educators, Neal, during that first address, vowed change was coming.

And it has.

When the superintendent gave her fifth State of Our Schools speech last week at the same place as her inaugural address, Ottawa Hills High School, the hour-long event culminated in a standing ovation — and an agreement from everyone from Mayor Rosalynn Bliss to School Board President Tony Baker that the school district is quickly moving in the right direction.

Graduation rates have gone up, violence in the schools has dropped, enrollment is improving (this year, the district has lost just 47 students, compared to the 400 to 600 individuals being lost in prior years, and the district expects GRPS to soon be one of the few mid-sized urban districts in the entire nation to buck the trend of declining enrollment), schools are opening and new programs are launching, funding for the arts has been restored, curriculum was overhauled in order to place more teachers in the classroom, more parents are getting involved in the schools, and everyone from nonprofits and city government have excitedly partnered with the district.

Plus, public perception of the schools is turning around. In a vote of confidence from the community at large, voters passed a 25-year, $175 million school improvement bond in November, which will result in the makeover of four high schools, construction upgrades at 14 other schools, millions of dollars in technology and security improvements, and more. The first projects being funded by the bond will be the demolition of the old Ed Park/City/UPrep building at 111 College, as well as the renovation of Covell Elementary School in order to house the middle and high school students from CA Frost Environmental Science Academy.

“Five years ago, when I started, I said I couldn’t do this job by myself,” Neal says during last week’s address. “I asked you to join me and help me transform this for our children. Many of you in this room, individuals and organizations, said, ‘I will.’ You agreed to come on this journey with me — and because of that, we have made a difference in the lives of children. All of you, we’ve impacted the lives of children that will go long beyond us."

“I am so pleased to stand before you and say Grand Rapids Public Schools are strong,” the superintendent continues. "They are stable. We are on the rise.”

‘No flashiness, no flowers’: How the superintendent has reshaped the district

The statistics paint an impressive picture of the GRPS turnaround: according to Neal (a self-identified data nerd who can regularly be seen swimming in binders filled with numbers about everything from the day’s student absences to test scores and much more), graduation rates across the district have risen by 12 percent in the last four years. For people of color, those percentages are higher, with graduation rates increasing by 21 percent for African American students and 14 percent for Hispanic/Latino pupils. Plus, more economically disadvantaged students and English language learners are graduating, their rates jumping by 15 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

Student attendance too has gone up, and the district has cut chronic absenteeism by about 25 percent over the past four years. Schools are safer — major incidents (such as students bringing weapons to school or serious assaults) have dropped by 26 percent over the past four years, Neal reports.

Additionally, test scores are rising — GRPS has posted the third largest increase in ACT composite scores for the entire country, and dual enrollment, meaning high school students taking college courses, jumped by 45 percent over last year. (Rapid Growth has asked GRPS to provide the numbers of students behind all of these percentage increases, and we will add the figures once the district sends them.)

But what is the story behind the statistics? How did this all come to be, and how will the district make sure the improvements continue — and make sure they are sustainable?

From the head of the School Board to other educators, it’s agreed that the major catalyst for this turnaround is Neal, who has been able to rally support among administrators, parents, students, city leaders, and educators (though some teachers have pointed out continued discord and frustration with the administration, particularly now that they have been without a contract for almost the entire school year).

“Even by her first [State of Our Schools], everyone was impressed,” Grand Rapids Board of Education President Tony Baker, who has served on the board since 2008, says of Neal. “At the first State of Our Schools, it was her, no flashiness, no flowers, like the former superintendent had done. It was just her on stage and the leaders of the union, and each of those people spoke. That was such a huge signal because it meant that she wasn’t there to make those people sound bad to pay them less. She was bringing them up as partners. She recognized the strengths of the community resources available.”

This idea, that she has harnessed the resources and talent that already existed within the school district and the Grand Rapids community at large, is one that is oft repeated, and, at last week’s speech, Mayor Bliss described Neal as “one of the most dynamic and authentic leaders that I’ve had the privilege of working with.”

“Under her leadership, she has led a movement,” Bliss says. “In just five short years she has truly transformed Grand Rapids Public Schools and has transformed how our community views Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

From student to superintendent

Neal’s emergence as GRPS’s rising star was a long time coming. One of nine children, she grew up with her siblings and parents in Grand Rapids, attending Madison Elementary School, South Middle School and Creston High School. At the age of 16, she began working at Creston High School — her alma mater that she was forced to close as superintendent because of poor attendance and a myriad other problems — and was so successful as a work study student that she was asked to start full time, prompting her to graduate early (which she had enough credits to do). She attended Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University, and, for the past 41 years she has worked in GRPS, including as a receptionist, secretary, compliance officer, assistant to the superintendent, and, now, superintendent.

This extensive knowledge of the system and its players, as well as what seems like everyone in the community, has proved invaluable to Neal.

“When you have new superintendents come in every couple of years, they have to learn names of employees, the community, everything,” she says in a sit-down interview with Rapid Growth last week. “I had an advantage over other people — I could hit the ground running on day one. I was assistant superintendent for almost eight years. I knew we were once a family, and we had to get back to that. I wanted to bring about hope once again. The love I’ve felt for the district my whole life, I’ve wanted others to feel that.”

Turmoil that needed to be fixed — and rapidly

When Neal hit the ground that first day, she wasn’t actually quite superintendent yet — she had been named interim superintendent by the Board of Education, which was anticipating launching a national search for someone to fill the position. But, as they watched Neal at the helm, that quickly changed.

“It was pretty much decided within two to three months that she would be the permanent superintendent,” Baker says.

One of the things that won the board over, as well as others in the district, was the fact that Neal launched what she called a “listening tour” — in other words, she met with essentially everyone, from teachers and principals to parents and janitors about what changes they wanted to see in the schools.

“There was a lot of discord, disarray in the district,” Baker says. “There was a huge lack of trust amongst the staff. The community was fed up. There was a lot of turmoil, and that turmoil needed to be fixed and pretty rapidly.”

"The resources we needed for GRPS to succeed were here, and Teresa knew they were here,” he continues. “The level of financial, and other support, we needed was here, and she knew all of the foundations, all the philanthropists, everyone.”

Ronald Gorman, the assistant superintendent of pre-K to 12th grade instructional support and a former teacher for nearly 20 years, too stresses these first days as crucial stepping stones to a thriving district.

“We spent the first six months when Teresa was on the job listening to the community,” says Gorman, who was one of the first people Neal appointed to her cabinet when she became superintendent. “As a result of listening to the community, we made some really bold moves, one of which was closing 10 programs, including one of the schools where Teresa went to high school, Creston High School. Teresa said, ‘I want to close 10 programs and then never have to close anything again.’”

Closing the schools — a move that was part of what is known as the GRPS Transformation Plan, which was formed after the listening tour and aimed to stabilize and grow the district — was emotional for many in the community, including Neal, who becomes visibly teary eyed when speaking about shuttering her alma mater, but the hardships, administrators say, were worth it in order to pave the way for new, successful schools in which students performed far better than before. The Creston High School students, for example, were placed at Innovation Central High School, which Gorman notes has become one of the top schools in the state. Creston High School now houses Grand Rapids City High-Middle School.

“It’s why I closed Creston, to focus on the big picture,” Neal says in the same interview. “That was probably one of the hardest things, to close my high school. But I knew I had to love the district more than Creston. I struggle even now with it, but look at what my kids have now. They have a lab; they have an auditorium; they have a home that will live long beyond me.”

The closure of all 10 schools paved the way for the emergence of other successful institutions, like the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, and a soon-to-be Middle Years College program at Ottawa Hills High School, which will allow students to receive a high school diploma and associate's degree in five years, among other initiatives. These positive changes have led to a dramatic reshaping of the public’s perception of the school district, such leaders as Bliss and Baker say.

“Middle class families who have options are beginning to choose Grand Rapids Public Schools again,” Baker says. “You have families reconsidering Grand Rapids for its schools. Those people are coming into the themed schools — the Museum School, Frost, the Zoo School, Southwest Community Campus. I think now the more challenging thing is really improving all of the schools, especially those places where families feel like they have less of an option.”

Plus, Grand Rapids educators are increasingly enrolling their family members in the school system.

“My superintendent, both of her grandchildren go to Grand Rapids Public Schools, our science curriculum coordinator’s kids go to public schools, a lot of leadership kids’ go to public schools,” Gorman says. “There was a time where folks who were in leadership were not living in the district, and there was no way they were sending their kids to the district — now they are.”

Sweeping changes

In addition to the listening tour and closing the schools, Neal immediately implemented a series of changes, including, she notes, giving "every employee in the entire district a substantial raise,” restoring funding for the arts — a program that had essentially been entirely gutted, beginning to mandate that students wear uniforms, eliminating a controversial curriculum (called Blended Learning) that had been implemented two years prior and had resulted in numerous teachers being taken out of the classroom because students were taking more classes online, and, with the help of former Board of Education member and now newly-elected state Rep. David LaGrand, implementing restorative justice, which focuses on changing behavior for the good instead of suspending students. The restorative justice program has been particularly effective in helping students stay in school and graduate, and Neal reports that 5,200 children have participated in restorative practices this year, which is up by more than 3,750 over last year.

Plus, Neal launched, or solidified, extensive partnerships with community organizations and businesses that have resulted in major changes throughout the district, from a comprehensive look at problems in the curriculum to new schools. Grand Rapids Community Foundation, for example, raised $33 million for the Challenge Scholars program — an initiative that offers free college tuition at Grand Rapids Community College for students who attended Harrison Park, Westwood Middle School and Union High School. That program was just expanded this week to include all Union High School students who attended Union for four years and have a GPA of 2.0 or higher.

Other examples include Steelcase, which helped them fund an audit of their curriculum; Brian Cloyd, John Kennedy and Steve VanAndel spearheaded efforts to raise more than $10 million to construct the Uprep building on Division, the first public school built with no tax dollars (with the exception of food service); and the Wege Foundation partnered with the district to create the expanded Blandford School.

A celebration of rising graduation rates, but there is ‘still a lot to do’

Much of this change implemented by Neal and other administrators and educators, directly and indirectly, led to higher graduation numbers. Overseeing this rise in graduation rates is Gorman, who has shifted the district's focus to ensuring freshmen aren’t falling through the cracks by, for example, partnering African American pupils with role models in the community.

“The most powerful thing that has helped us is placing more emphasis on freshmen than on seniors,” when it comes to graduation efforts, Gorman says. “As soon as a freshman fails ninth grade, we get them into a credit recovery track.”

“We can’t allow our freshmen to keep failing,” Gorman continues. “... I want high school principals to see the number of kids who have failed more than one class. At the end of every marking period, they have to know the students in their classrooms who are failing and put a plan in place to get them into classes right away, to redo tests or assignments. If they do end up failing the class, they put in interventions right away, get the parents involved right away.”

Even with the successes, both Gorman and Neal note there’s still plenty of work to be done — after all, despite the 12 percent jump in graduation rates, that number is dancing around an average of 56 percent. While that figure represents the first time that the district has seen a graduation rate of more than 50 percent in years, it still significantly lags behind the state, which has an average graduation rate of nearly 80 percent. Nearby districts also fall below the state average, with Wyoming having a graduation rate of 68.8 percent in 2015, Holland reporting a 69 percent graduation rate, and Kentwood having a 74.8 percent graduation rate. Meanwhile, Forest Hills had a 95 percent graduation rate in 2015, and East Grand Rapids came in at 94 percent.

Plus, the numbers swing pretty wildly within the district, with, for example, GR Montessori landing a 100 percent graduation rate in the 2014-15 school year, City High Middle School boasting a 95.12 percent graduation rate that same year, and UPrep getting a 92.5 percent graduation rate. Grand Rapids Learning Center, meanwhile, had a 50 percent graduation rate last year, Ottawa Hills was at 55.36 percent, and Union landed 56.82 percent.

There are, of course, reasons for discrepancies among the area's districts, including the fact that 85 percent of the approximately 17,000 students in GRPS qualify for free and reduced lunch, many of the students live in poverty, there are high rates of mobility (students are moving in and out of the district), there are pupils who have just moved into the district and don’t speak any English, and others have arrived not having any formal education. This presents a far different set of challenges for GRPS than, say, Forest Hills, where’s there’s a far lower rate of poverty and more of a homogenous population.

“We have a lot to do,” Neal says at her State of Our Schools address. “But we’re a lot further than where we were. We need to celebrate. Everything we’ve done in the last four to five years, we need to continue to build on that. We’re on the right track. We have been strategic; we’ve been very intentional, and we’ll continue to be very intentional.”

Decreasing absenteeism — and increasing enrollment

Over the past four years, chronic absenteeism has been slashed by 25 percent, and so far this year to date, the school system is down another 19.2 percent, Neal reports at the State of Our Schools address.

This too stems from action taken almost immediately after Neal became superintendent.

“I went to parents, to people in this community; I’ve gone to barber shops, churches, beauty stores, grocery stores; I’ve talked to kids and grandparents and neighbors,” Neal says. “It’s talking to kids and parents just so they understand the importance of showing up. Principals will call parents; I will call parents. We send truant officers, the Grand Rapids police. We will get you to school.”

As more already enrolled students are coming to school, Neal is also launching a “Bring Our Kids Home” campaign to draw the approximately 7,000 students who live in the Grand Rapids but do not attend school here back into the district.

“I’m going after my kids,” Neal says. “I’ve hired recruitment specialists. Seven thousand kids live in Grand Rapids but don’t go to GRPS; they go to private schools, charter schools. Those are my kids. You guys need to come home to us.”

Getting the parents involved

An integral part of all of these changes — the drop in absences, the increased graduation rates, the dip in violence — are parents, who, more and more, are getting involved with the schools.

In 2010, a group of parents, the group Believe to Become, and LINC Community Revitalization formed the idea for Parent University, which, with the help of GRPS, Evolve!,Kent School Services Network, Creative Change Mission, and the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, launched in 2013.

The program, which offers classes in topics like health and wellness and navigating the educational system, has drawn more than 1,094 parents this year, up 37 percent over last year. Plus, the university is offering 529 different courses, nearly four times the number available last year.

This, in addition to other efforts to draw in parents, Neal says, has led to much-needed change throughout the district.

“More parents are attending parent-teacher conferencnes,” she says at last week’s speech. “More parents are volunteers and active at their child’s school. More parents are signing up for the Parent Teacher Community Council.”

Gorman stresses that principals too have launched significant efforts to engage parents, including, for example, Mark Frost, the principal at Innovation Central High School.

“In Mark’s building, 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a third are English language learners, and Mark has a parents meeting every montht that gets at least 600 parents,” Gorman says. “That’s because he calls parents, he sends letters home, all up and down Michigan Street he asks shops if they’re willing to contribute dinner, he asks Sprint dealerships to reduce the cost of cell phones. Mark, he goes to local businesss, manages his budget and grants, and asks for community support.”

And, of course, it’s not just parent engagement that principals are succeeding at, Gorman stresses.

“The community overwhelmingly passed the bond — how did that happen?” Gorman asks. “After hours, principals were knocking on doors, calling parents, beating the pavement because people feel so passionately about this work. People want to be a part of this. We’re only into year five — what happens in five more years?”

Respecting the teachers

Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, explains that despite these changes, there is still much that needs to be addressed when it comes to supporting teachers and ensuring their voices are heard in the district — particularly in light of the fact that teachers’ contracts expired last July.

“Everyone’s been really frustrated,” Bouwense says, noting that a first-year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree is earning about $37,000 per year and more than half of GRPS teachers are making less than $50,000 annually.

“You have people who can’t afford insurance or day care so they can go to work,” she says. “The new, young teachers are taking home $250 a week because of insurance premiums. That’s ridiculously lower than it was five, 10 years ago… When people have an opportunity to go somewhere for more money, they leave.”

It is these issues with pay that are a main factor in continued morale problems, Bouwense says.

“Yes, the morale is different than when [former Superintendent] Taylor was here,” she says. “But when you say morale is up, it’s apples and oranges. There are pockets in the district where morale is fine. There are buildings that have nice, competent principals who treat teachers with respect. But then the are the ones where it’s not happening like that.”

“There’s all kinds of issues, and the billboards look good, a lot of the media looks good, the advertisements look good, but look at the people and what they get paid. That hits on morale,” Bouwense says.

Both Neal and Gorman stress they understand the financial difficulties facing the teachers and aim to change them.

“The people who are picketing, they want a contract,” Neal says of union members who have picketed at various educational events, including a recent Board of Education meeting. “I don’t take this stuff personally. They should be representing their members. I want to do right by them; I just have to do the numbers. We want a great community; our employees deserve the best, and we want to do what’s best for them.”

Gorman emphasizes that “Teresa’s always trying to do right by staff; she really is.”

“We as a society still haven’t gotten to a place where teachers are compensated for what they do,” he says. “That’s around the country. When Superintendent Neal came on board, she wanted to make sure teachers received raises… Our goal is to do whatever we can do to compensate folks and ensure you have the benefits you need to take care of your family and have a pay that’s more than living wage.”

It isn’t just the pay, however, that is weighing on teachers, according to Bouwense — teachers tell her they don’t always feel supported or listened to, both at their school and district level.

Whether it’s at the administration level, or in state government, Bouwense says she would like to see more of a presence of educators, which could help to mitigate an environment that she calls detrimentally focused on data, including standardized test scores.

“One of the trends that gets in the way is trying to run a school like a business,” she says. “It isn’t a business. It’s a human service operation. It’s not about business; it’s about education kids and understanding what they need.”

Part of this emphasis on data, a big part of which originally stemmed from the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, has left teachers feeling increasingly burnt out, and as though they are no longer given the kind of respect they once had, Bouwense says.

“A person who feels appreciated will do more than is ever expected,” she continues. “I don’t think just saying we want the best teachers and our people are wonderful cuts it. Recognition, acknowledgement, appreciation — genuine appreciation —is what is wanted. That would be a systemic change. If the teachers were treated the same way we treat the students, that would be fabulous.”

This respect for the teachers is something that Neal says is one of her top priorities.

“As a superintendent, I can’t do this without my teachers and without my principals,” she says. “You have to believe in what people in this community bring. You have to believe you’re here to serve the people in this community. You can’t do this job without loving my kids and loving my staff members.”

After all, Neal says, she has stayed in the Grand Rapids Public Schools for 41 years because of the people who inspire her in the system, including the teachers — and, of course, the students.

“I was appointed to this position because this was my calling,” she says. “I will be 57 years old this July, and I’ve been in this system since I was four years old. I was supposed to be here. I’m staying. Everything I’ve done in my life was preparing me to lead the Grand Rapids Public Schools. I can dare to be be bold because this is my job, my calling.”
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