Superintendent Update on Transformation Plan Success

By Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal

In May, I gave my 4th State of our Schools address to provide an update to the community about where we have been and where we are headed. Whether you have children or not, Grand Rapids Public Schools belongs to each and every person in this community. As a community member, you should know that GRPS has turned the corner and is heading in the right direction! I feel a difference in the energy and excitement surrounding the district when I talk to parents, students, staff, and community members, and I hope you can too! It is with great joy and optimism that I share this update about the district with you. 

We could not have accomplished what we have without an amazing team of people, so I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you to President Baker and all the members of the board, my Cabinet, our students and parents, teachers, school principals, school based and central office support staff, volunteers, and all our community partners, who are too numerous to list here.

Four years ago, I was filled with uncertainty. I was faced with a system twenty years in decline. We were in a state of churn and widespread instability. Some schools had a different principal each year for 5 plus years. We did district wide layoffs every year or every other year – displacing teachers. Staff morale was at an all-time low. Community confidence was at an all-time low. Our enrollment was declining. Our budget was slipping closer and closer toward deficit. Our academic achievement and graduation rates were stagnant. Our facilities and technology were falling apart, failing, and stuck in the 20th century, with the exception of the schools we improved with the 2004 bond. And we were faced with the very real threat of a possible state takeover of one or more schools- something that would have been a black eye, not just for GRPS, but for this entire community. We were in a state of crisis and stuck in a twenty year downward spiral. But that’s where it ended and where the GRPS transformation began.

Today I write to you with very different emotions. I am filled with pride, confidence, and absolute certainty about the future direction of GRPS. The state of our schools is strong, stable, and we are poised for growth!

Our graduation rates are up. Graduation rates increased by 5% over the last 3 years and nearly 10% among African American and Hispanic/Latino students.

Our test scores are up. In fact, GRPS posted the third largest increase in ACT composite scores for the entire county. Make no mistake, we are not where we want to be but our scores and grad rates are trending strong.

Our City High Middle School was ranked #1 in the state and in the top 100 school in the country by US News and World Report. And it is tuition-free for everyone inside and outside of our district.

Our dual enrollment is up. The number of students participating in dual enrollment increased by 45% over last year and the total college credits earned increased by 52%.

Our professional development is now coordinated, organized, and district wide. Prior to four years ago, professional development was just neither as intentional, comprehensive, and coordinated, nor was it districtwide. We changed that. We established the GRPS Way, a set of standards and expectations for all staff, and what we call “Leading the GRPS Way” to more effectively develop our talent across all employee groups.

Our student attendance is up. We have cut chronic absenteeism by 25% over the last three years. The attendance challenge is working!

Our schools are safer.  Security incidents are down 11%, and major incidents are down 23%. Notably, our very own Mr. Larry Johnson, Assistant Superintendent and Executive Director of Public Safety and School Security, is the president of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. Not only did Mr. Johnson and his team secure a $200,000 grant from the Michigan State Police to increase security, but his department, along with our athletics department, also received a national merit award from the University of Southern Mississippi for excellence in how to conduct after school and athletic events. GRPS is gaining national attention for our expertise in school safety and event management, and our model will now be used throughout the nation.

In addition to that, another major reason why I believe our safety numbers are improving is because of the success of our Restorative Justice initiative. In my State of the Schools two years ago, I announced we would be piloting a restorative justice initiative aimed at reducing suspensions and building relationships between students, students and staff, staff and parents, and more. We initially said we were only going to target a few buildings. But let me tell you – this has just caught fire and taken on a life of its own. Just this year, we had 5 district staff trained as Restorative Justice trainers, 40 district staff trained as facilitators of Restorative Circles, 150 district staff trained as implementers, 27 schools implementing restorative practices, and 1,550 kids who participated in restorative practices.

Our district is getting greener! Thanks to a major gift from Rich and Helen DeVos and partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council, we are home to one of only 6 “Green Fellows” in the nation. Our green fellow is working with our team to develop a comprehensive, district-wide sustainability plan. We are increasing recycling already. We are overhauling our purchasing of cleaning chemicals and supplies to look at cleaner, greener ways. We are piloting the use of compostable utensils and trays. GRPS is already the state leader with the most number of green built, LEED certified school builds. Now we are taking it to the next level and looking at sustainability district wide.

Our negotiations have improved dramatically. Unlike years past where we were engaged in prolonged, public, nuclear style negotiations, in the last three years we have had some of the best negotiations in more than a decade. We reached agreements and started to prove our commitment to investing in our people, investing in our talent. I am also pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement on the school calendar for the earliest time in more than a decade. Special thanks to Mary Bouwense, the GREA team, and my team for working to make this happen.

Our athletics are more competitive! For the first time since we reduced the comprehensive high schools from 3 to 2, and thanks to the SAF investment in elementary and middle school athletics, our teams are more competitive. One great example is the Ottawa Hills High School boys’ basketball team. They were OK Gold champs and district champs for the second year in row and have been for three of the last four years. One of the Ottawa ballers was even named to the Mlive Dream Team. Union High School girls’ basketballer Tyra Williams not only was named all-conference, but she also broke the 1,000 point mark for her high school career and was named to the MLive Dream Team. And for the second year in a row, several boys on the Ottawa Hills swim team broke multiple records and went to the state tournament. Michael Pall was one of them and he received the Academic All-America Award! These are just a few examples of our remarkable teams and student athletes.

Our special education is transforming so that special education is seen as a support to general education instead of as a separate, stand-alone entity. We are implementing “focus on inclusion = focus on results” and helping to rewrite the ISD plan for special education delivery.

Our bond rating is up. We are one of few urban districts in the state, let alone the nation, that saw our bond rating go from negative to stable in the midst of a recession, declining enrollment, and state budget cuts. In fact, the bond rating agencies in their most recent reports suggested they may increase it further based on what they are seeing in our fiscal management. And just this winter, ranked GRPS the second most efficient school district in America! The Wallet Hub ranking and bond rating increases are signs of how well managed GRPS is and how well we take care of the taxpayer dollars that are entrusted to us. Unlike the vast majority of urban districts, we are strengthening our fund balance, investing in our talent, and investing for stability and growth.

Our parent engagement is up. Thanks to our friends at Believe to Become and the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, we overhauled our parent engagement strategies and launched Parent University, a first of its kind in Michigan. As a result, the level of parent participation and parent engagement is up over the last three years. Parent University is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are more than 800 parents registered, 110 different course offerings, and more than 8,100 course attendees. The website alone has had more than 28,000 views.

And last, but certainly not least, our enrollment is stabilizing. We had the single best fall count day in two decades! We were projected to lose 400 students but instead only lost 27! That is unheard of across urban districts. Better yet, we had the single best count day in two decades this spring, too. We typically lose between 100 and 200 students, and back in 2006 we lost more than 500. This year we gained 15!

We are doing it! The GRPS Transformation Plan is working! We are poised to be one of the first urban districts in the state, if not the nation, to stabilize and grow. This is why we need to strike while the iron is hot. We need to pour fuel on this fire and keep this momentum going. It’s time we implement Phase II of the GRPS Transformation Plan and it’s time we pass our bond to secure, connect, and transform GRPS!

Three years ago, I made a pledge – a promise to the taxpayers and voters of Grand Rapids. I said I would not ask the voters or taxpayers for anything until I could prove the success of Phase I of the GRPS Transformation Plan. Our success story speaks for itself. I am a woman of my word. Promises made, promises kept. Now I am asking the voters and taxpayers of Grand Rapids to come along side us, to join us, to support us, to be part of the GRPS transformation, to be part of the energy, excitement, and momentum, to be part of the movement to make GRPS the best midsized urban district in America.

Phase II of the GRPS Transformation Plan is when we go on the offensive for the first time in twenty years. It’s when we invest for growth!

The bottom line is this: we have a plan that is working. We planned the work, now we have to keep working the plan and keep implementing the GRPS Transformation Plan with fidelity. In order to fully implement this plan, we need community support through the proposed bond.

The GRPS bond is not just about buildings, technology, and security. It’s about stabilizing, strengthening, and growing Grand Rapids Public Schools. The future growth and success of GRPS is not just an education issue. It’s not just a city issue. It is a regional issue, an economic development issue, a workforce development issue, and a quality of life issue. If we want to retain and attract families, talent, and job providers to live, work, and play in our city, we need a stable and growing GRPS.

We are poised to become a national model for how large urban public school districts can transform for stability, growth, and academic success. Passage of the bond is absolutely key to ensure we keep the momentum and success going! I made my promise. I kept my promise. We are doing the right work. We are producing remarkable results. We have established a proven track record. We are the second best in the country for managing taxpayer dollars. We’ve shown we are good stewards. Now I need you. Our students need you! Please join me and be part of the GRPS transformation!

Let’s get out the vote on November 3rd and do right by these kids. Thank you for all your support.