Teresa Weatherall Neal led the district to become ‘an urban public-school success story,’ says board trustee
By Charles Honey, Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick - June 21, 2019
Retiring Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal says the sounds of children on the playground near her office remind her of ‘why we do this work’
When she considers her proudest moments as superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools these past seven years, Teresa Weatherall Neal thinks of a 7-year-old girl who came up to her at a grocery store and asked, “Are you my granny’s friend?”
When Neal said no, the girl asked if she was her auntie. No again. The girl persisted, “You’re something to me.” Neal answered, “Well, I’m your superintendent.”
“She felt a kinship with me,” Neal recalled warmly. “She knew it was someone that cared. That meant something to me as a black woman, that she would think I was her granny’s friend.”
Neal brought the scene to mind as she reflected on her tenure as GRPS superintendent, which ends with her retirement June 30. The squeals of youngsters on recess at nearby Campus Elementary School drifted through her window as Neal said how much she’ll miss the students she calls “my children.”
“I’ve believed in these kids right from the very beginning,” she said, sitting in her half-emptied office recently. “I know they have worth, they have value, they can do wonderful things.”
She said she’s sought to help those kids believe in themselves as much as she does, in leading the 16,000-student district that she herself entered as a 4-year-old in 1963. She went on to work for GRPS for 44 years, starting as a student worker from Creston High. Now with two grandchildren attending GRPS, she’s retiring not just from a job, but from a place where she’s spent most of her life.
“It is more of my life than anything else is,” said Neal, who turns 60 in July. “All I’ve ever known is Grand Rapids Public Schools, but also the city of Grand Rapids. I’m struggling with it a little bit, this idea of being separate from the district.”
Neal at this spring’s Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation celebration, where a fund for students was renamed in her honor (photo courtesy Bryan Esler Photo)
A Knack for Fixing Problems
Yet she leaves GRPS excited about its future and confident that gains will continue under Ron Gorman, recently named interim superintendent on a one-year contract. Neal said she wanted him to be her successor and that the district is “in awesome hands with Ron,” an assistant superintendent with extensive district experience.
Neal herself started out as an interim in January 2012 to replace former Superintendent Bernard Taylor, before being named to the permanent post later that year. Tony Baker, the current board’s senior member, recalled going to Neal’s house with then-board President Senita Lenear to see if she would serve as interim leader of a district suffering from low morale, constant churn and poor public perception.
“Teresa just had an incredible analysis of everything that needed to happen at Grand Rapids Public Schools,” Baker said. “She knew exactly what the problems were, and she had a sense of what the solutions would be.”
Neal promptly set about finding those solutions, starting with a community listening tour aimed at determining what was working and what wasn’t. That led to adoption of the Transformation Plan, a comprehensive overhaul that closed, consolidated and created schools, expanded choices and took aim at low graduation and high dropout rates.
By being honest about the district’s problems, genuinely listening and bringing community players together, Neal led the district to become “an urban public-school success story,” Baker said. “She brought people together to create a school system that people in the community think is good, and is a national example.”
Innovations for Lasting Change
Museum School is the most visible example of innovation under Neal, who brought together university and city partners to create a nationally recognized program. But Baker cited Innovation Central High School as more typical of Neal’s know-how by consolidating career academies from different high schools into one thriving program with a 90 percent graduation rate. Such successes contributed to the “reinvention of Grand Rapids,” he said.
Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association representing 1,350 teachers and other professionals, said the high-profile theme and innovation schools have helped retain and attract families, and she credited Neal with improving community perception of GRPS. However, many of the traditional schools don’t get the same resources as those that “make the billboards,” she said, and their teachers face bigger class sizes with less support.
“We have a lot of schools that are struggling,” Bouwense said. “It’s kind of a have and have-not district.”
Neal acknowledges the need for continual improvement, citing ever-greater demands on teachers and parents and more barriers for students. But she points to walkable neighborhood schools as a point of pride: “I like that people in a neighborhood can have their school.”
Other highlights she cites include: establishment of GRPS as a Promise Zone qualifying graduates for college scholarships; a nearly 60 percent increase in graduation rates; revived athletic and arts programs; student tours of historically black colleges and universities; more students taking college dual enrollment courses; and a thriving preschool program.
These and more have put many graduates on “a path for greatness,” she said: “The changes we’ve made, the growth that we have seen, will change generations.”
As for the criticism she weathered over the GRPS special education program, Neal said she understands how emotionally charged it was for the community. But she stands by her decisions, which she says were informed by her own sister’s experience as a special education student.
“Whether people think we did it right or wrong, it was always with the best intention around children,” she said firmly. “I was going to do what was best for children.”