G-Sync: Teresa Weatherall Neal Unlocks Possibilities

Women's History Month asks we not only honor women but that we listen as well. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen discovers a new connection to education after speaking with Grand Rapids Public Schools' Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.
One of my epiphany moments in life happened years ago at the corner of Eastern and Franklin as the light at the intersection faded from caution to stop. I began to slow down my big Buick LeSabre – my post-college used car.

At the sight of a group of people approaching the crosswalk, I used my elbow, which had been resting on the window ledge, to push down the lock. I sat in silence, waiting for the light to change.

But on that day, not only did the light change to green, but something in me began to awaken about my own patterns of thought. My experience that day not only began to free me from my prejudicial views of "the other" based on a fear of the unknown, but it also set me on a new way at looking at my community and the world.

I was reminded of this moment last week, when I talked with Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal of Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS). While my background is not in education, the deeper we pursued the notion that ideas and perceptions of who we are rooted in the past, it became abundantly clear there were similarities.

When Weatherall Neal took over the school system as the interim superintendent before finally being appointed superintendent of GRPS in June 2012, she became the fourth new person in that position whose name I could remember.

Each time, a flurry of new stories has proclaimed the challenges before whoever rose to the helm in the district, but modern education has always seemed complicated and messy to me, so I was never following too closely.

With Weatherall Neal's appointment, however, I recognized that the board had installed an ultimate insider when hiring her, because unlike her predecessors, she graduated from the district and then came up from the ranks of the GRPS staff.

And my hands-off way of thinking was a problem Weatherall Neal wanted to address with me right up front. Prior to meeting her briefly at an event last month hosted by GRYP, YNPN and BL2END, I was not too concerned about the school system other than voting and the occasional fund drive that appeared at my front door.

"We need you involved. We need to move all of us beyond the culture of where we address education from a looking back vantage point to a present view of our public schools," says Weatherall Neal. "We need to begin to operate in the present, owning today."

Today, in her second year at the helm, Weatherall Neal serves our community by managing a school system with an operating budget of more than 260 million dollars a year. She has come to understand how the largest public school system in the area should be run because, to use a line from my 10th grade shop class, she has been under the hood and knows how this engine runs. She's using her lifelong knowledge of the system as the basis of her 10-year school transformation plan for the GRPS district.   

Her employment with the district began when Weatherall Neal was 15 years old. As a part of her career class, she secured a position in the Grand Rapid Public Schools administration office, typing up correspondence for Gerald Dawkins and Donna Carter.

"In those days before the personal computer, we had only typewriters," says Weatherall Neal, "If you have ever used one of these relics of the past, then you know how laborious the task of letter composition was in that era."

This is a fact I do recall. These days, one simply hits the "delete" key to backspace over any errors – a gesture it seems these days I perform often within each paragraph. For Weatherall Neal and others from her generation, a mistake often meant starting over at square one when the correction fluid or tape could not easily erase our mistakes.

We were taught in this simple act of typing a very valuable skill of focus as well as the need to perfect our process, according to Weatherall Neal.

This use of insider knowledge, focus and perfection is probably a great way to describe Weatherall Neal, who has implemented some of the most stringent changes at GRPS since she began as interim superintendent. She demonstrates the ability to seamlessly move between departments because there is a good chance she has already worked within that position or has a familiarity with staffers after nearly 40 years of employment with the GRPS system.

The changes in education are arriving very fast these days and this is why, according to Weatherall Neal, the average urban superintendant's position lasts only 18 months on average before a move is made to the next school system. But with her knowledge of the inner departmental workings and the office politics of GRPS, Weatherall Neal has advanced her plan in a time period that others new to the area would still be struggling to adjust.

It is hard to imagine the challenges to bring stability to a school system. And yet her bold changes and successes are exactly why so many are drawn to Weatherall Neal.  
She recently delivered her third state of the schools address in a speech that celebrated a few of the early successes.

Hard decisions have had to be made, including the closing of her alma mater, Creston High School. When I asked her about the closure of Creston High School, I could detect that this was a hard topic for Weatherall Neal.

"Like I said at the beginning of my tenure, if the proof was there that I could spare the school, any school, then I would not close it," says Weatherall Neal. "But the numbers weren't there for Creston so I had to do it. I love all the schools the same and had to make the best decision for our schools."

And while Creston may have closed, a positive did emerge out of the loss with a new opportunity for the students of Grand Rapids City High, whose own legacy appeared to be more about migration of place than a celebration of student achievement. In Weatherall Neal's lifetime, City High, as it is called by most, has moved at least four times.

City High, one of the area's most desired schools for its academic focus and its legacy in our region, had never been given a permanent home. Weatherall Neal moved City High into the old Creston High School space, making a commitment to this school. This approach of presenting the challenge to the community, solving it collaboratively, then celebrating together is intriguing to watch as more and more people are being invited to take notice.

"The city of Grand Rapids is growing and our biggest message we want to get out to all people is that we are here to stay," says Weatherall Neal, who takes the challenges of this reorganization very seriously. "We want to be able to grow schools like City High, which for too long could not accept any more students than they currently served due to space concerns. Now in their new home, City High will begin to add an additional 50-60 students each year."

Weatherall Neal's ability to envision a growing city's needs in a place like City High, which was recently rated as one of the top 200 performing schools in America, means that, because of this move to a larger and permanent home, more than 500 more total students will be added when her plan is complete.   

In addition, Weatherall Neal has been making other inspired moves, bringing many of our theme or concept schools under one roof in places like Innovation Central, (the old Central High) which is home to The Academy of Business, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship, Academy for Design and Construction, School of Health Sciences, Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (Engineering & Biomedical), and the Grand Rapids Montessori.

We can celebrate the district's student-led restorative justice program that seeks to create solutions based on resolutions versus simply handing out punishment – the old model that even law enforcement and community organizations have admitted in their respective fields are not working.

On the horizon, the city will see not only our first urban farm school, but also a museum school at its Jefferson property in partnership with the Grand Rapids Public Museum. There is also a Grand Rapids School of the Arts slated for the Ottawa Hills neighborhood, utilizing community partners Grand Valley State University, Kendall College and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Weatherall Neal also is visiting our truancy problem with an old solution that is working. According to Weatherall Neal, if a parent does not send a child to school, then it is a form of neglect, and she has successfully prosecuted parents in our area who do not follow the law. This translated to a new absenteeism rate of 29 percent, down from 36 percent in the previous year.

Grand Rapids is a different city today than a decade ago, and its public school district is different too. When Weatherall Neal is pressed about staying the whole 10 years of the plan, a length of time that would clearly beat the national average, she quickly reminds me of Burt Bleke.

She served closely with Bleke, writing many of the grants for the numerous programs he put in place as a part of his 13-year plan during his tenure as superintendent. Bleke did not need to serve 13 years in order for his plan to materialize.

Weatherall Neal already recognizes that time is fleeting and knows that when an educator posts such strong numbers he or she can become a target for other districts to try and woo her away. In fact, Weatherall Neal's team has been in demand, helping other school districts, including Muskegon and Flint.

To ensure her plan is solid and executed as she envisions with her staff and board, Weatherall Neal has been working seven days a week for the last two years without a vacation. In addition to conducting the turn around plan, she is busy writing policy that will keep the energy going long after she is gone.

But how do you ensure a plan keeps going if you are not around? This is where our conversation gets very interesting, as she asks me questions about my involvement with schools.

Like many in this city without kids or with kids who have left the nest, I reply, "I don't get involved much unless asked by my teacher friends to attend a career day or read to kids." (March is National Reading Month.)

"But this is your school, too. You pay for it even if you do not send your kids there," says Weatherall Neal. "These are not just your neighbors' kids who attend GRPS but they are future citizens of the city."

We each owe a debt to those who came before us, and, using Weatherall Neal 's logic, we need to repay the gift to the next generation by getting involved. I wonder how we really do this when we come from such diverse backgrounds and situations. This is where Weatherall Neal is getting very creative.

"The simple path is go the formal route of filling out an application to volunteer at the school," says Weatherall Neal. "Or simply attend a meeting with your local school PTA to get to know your school and your neighbors' needs."

She is so serious about wanting every community resident to get involved with its neighborhood school that she's even working to break down barriers that have traditionally stopped some from showing up. The way current policy is written, no felon can be allowed on school grounds, and this does not make sense for Weatherall Neal when some of those felons are the very parents she wants to get plugged in to their children's education.

"Many people do not know that a person could receive a felony conviction for writing a bad check," says Weatherall Neal. "So I said, send those applications where a person checks off the felon box to me and let me vet each one."

Weatherall Neal has a firm stance on not allowing those who have committed violent or child endangerment crimes be let on the campus.

However, she does recognize that if a non-violent person has paid their debt to society, they deserve to be involved in making a child's life better.

"Let me be clear about my vision for our city from where I am seated," says Weatherall Neal. "An educated community is what makes a great city." Weatherall Neal understands that to create a successful school system, it will take more than just her staff and teachers to improve our GRPS.

She is hopeful that parents, neighbors, businesses, and all of us will recognize the city is bustling with volunteers aiding organizations with their talent all over our city. From soup kitchens to park clean-ups, from design blitzes to board membership, many people volunteer to assist in serving a community's need, even when they will most likely not benefit personally.

In the time Weatherall Neal and I spent together, it became crystal clear that we need to move past the notion that we can only be involved with our local school system when we are parents of kids going to school.

And while we have had many women in the role of superintendent before Weatherall Neal, her bold and unique approach as an education insider has not only captured the imagination of others in our community but will hopefully continue to bring others into the conversations around public education.

Under her leadership, we can move into an era of "owning now" as we shed our outdated, insular views of public education.

So in honor of this knowledge, and as the district gets the green light to accelerate toward more innovation and success, I've decided to make a slight tweak to my editorial ending by dedicating my close to Weatherall Neal's transformation plan – The Future GRPS Needs All of Us (in the present.)

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
[email protected]

Three events are focused on women and one with a few dudes breaking stereotypes. They are part of this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This! Check It.

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