Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal is retiring Monday, stepping away from the district in which she has been passionately engaged for decades.
A product of the Grand Rapids public school system, Neal started working for the district as a teenager, and slowly moved up the ranks to eventually become the leader and face of GRPS.
“I have loved this district my whole life,” said Neal, who has been superintendent for the last seven years, capping off 43 years of work for the district in various capacities.
“My legacy is just providing hope, getting people to believe as I do that these children are worthy of greatness and need to be supported. There is no way you can educate children without the support of the community.”
Parents, educators, and business and community leaders say Neal’s love and commitment to GRPS are at the root of the success she’s had executing her vision for children through her Transformation Plan.
The core of her Transformation Plan was improving student outcomes by bolstering academic programs performing well and discontinuing ineffective ones, expanding school choices to retain and recruit families, investing in talent, modernizing buildings, and investing for stability and growth.
She worked for 10 superintendents and started her career with the district at age 15 doing clerical work two hours a day through a co-op program at Creston High School. By the time she was a high school senior, she was working as a receptionist at the request of late superintendent Phillip Runkel.
Neal worked for several years as a secretary for various programs before moving into leadership roles, including as co-director of student services and nine years as assistant superintendent for community and student affairs.
While working full-time, the married mom of two earned an associate degree from Grand Rapids Junior College, a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Western Michigan University.
Even as she earned degrees and became part of the district leadership team, Neal said never once did she eye that coveted corner office on the third floor.
However, when she was tapped in January 2012 to be interim superintendent to replace Bernard Taylor, it wasn’t long before there was a groundswell of community support to drop the interim and have her take the reins and that office.
Her administration has experienced quite a bit of success.
During her tenure, the district has increased its overall high school graduation rate from 44.5 percent to 71.2 percent, passed a $175 million school improvement bond, created new theme schools and career academies to expand school choices, stabilized enrollment, increased public/private partnerships and became a Michigan Promise Zone designation extending the future opportunity for tuition-free college.
“She has left us in a wonderful position,” school board President Kristian Grant said, noting the focus going forward is on investing in content and culture.
“We are at a point where people are excited about this district and holding it to high standards. Sometimes that feels a little daunting, but it is because they’ve seen the progress and they know what this district is capable of because of the work Teresa has done and inspired others to do.”
Grant said those high expectations from the community weren’t there seven years ago. She said Neal’s legacy is changing a community by focusing on the most vulnerable people – its children. She said Neal often reminded people of their obligation to the children in the community.
Neal will leave a vastly different district than the one she inherited and an improved overall image and perception. Business and community leaders say she renewed confidence in the district that had been lacking, found ways to get to yes when collaboration had been challenging, and had a strategy for solving problems that have long existed.
Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of the Right Place, a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization, said Neal has done a phenomenal job. She said Neal earned the business community’s respect and affection.
“She came with a plan and strategy and she executed it, and that’s what a good leader does,” she said, noting Neal was relentless.
“In the middle of her strategy was always one group of people – her students – the children of Grand Rapids Public Schools. She engaged every aspect of this community to drive the interest of her students forward because her entire purpose was to make sure that those children get the best.”
Klohs said the path Neal has the district on needs to be continued.
She said the number one driver in economic development is talent. She said having a successful and well-functioning urban school district is hugely important.
“This is one of the biggest hires we will make in this community in a long time,” she said about the board’s search to replace Neal.
“This is absolutely critical. It is my sincere hope that whoever the school board picks can pick up on her leadership what she has put in place and continue on the same path because we don’t need to be doing a 180.’’
The school board has entered into a one-year agreement with Ronald Gorman, assistant superintendent of Pre-K-12 Institutional Support, to serve as interim superintendent while its restarts the national superintendent search. The board plans to hire a search firm to assist it. Four candidates were interviewed in March and two were invited back but the board voted 6-3 to restart the search.
Neal said Gorman will do right by the district and its children.
"Ron is as committed to this district and these children as I am,'' said Neal, who said he will do an excellent job and encourages him to own it and not think of it as a temporary appointment. "He loves these kids.''
But this week, all the attention is on Neal and what she has done for the school system.
Amway President Doug DeVos, who with his wife, Maria, have invested millions of dollars in GRPS through their foundation, said Neal galvanized the community and started momentum moving in a positive direction for the district.
Prior to her taking the helm, he said the perception of the district was varied but people generally felt it was not performing as well as it could or should.
“There was a lot of discussion around the problems but there was not alignment or collaboration around the solutions, and she was able to make that difference,” said DeVos, noting her confidence and humility.
“She had a wonderful ability to bring people together around a solution and get alignment and get everybody moving in the same direction. You wanted to be part of this journey with her.”
DeVos said she created an environment of innovation and empowerment and of execution. He said the next leader must have her or his own vison and be able to move the district forward.
Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler, who has been a superintendent for 35 years, 30 in Rockford, has been a close confidante of Neal since her appointment. He said one of the keys to her success is that she understood the district’s culture as a longtime employee.
“She was able to take that understanding and develop a comprehensive and realistic vision that, quite frankly, has made her the most successful superintendent of Grand Rapids schools that I’ve been associated with,” he said.
Shibler said Neal has accomplished what she set out to do but it hasn’t been easy, as she has faced some push back as she has pursued needed changes. He said she showed resilience and perseverance in transforming the district for students.
Longtime GRPS educator Jerry McComb said Neal been a leader for the school district and the greater community.
A teacher and principal for 30 years, he was principal of Gerald R. Academic Center, a college preparatory theme school, until his June 12 retirement.
The theme school was one the new ones created by Neal.
“She saw what happened under the previous superintendents, knew what was needed and delivered,” he said.
“She changed the atmosphere and environment when she took over. Teachers and administrators, the people in the trenches, didn’t feel listened to and supported but she changed that, and the climate is different.”
Neal said since she was introduced to the district at age 4 as a preschooler at Madison Park Elementary, she has been committed to doing the right thing and helping people.
She said working for GRPS wasn’t her dream job, rather she planned to be a social worker.
However, in her many roles for the district she said she has gotten to help people, from pointing out families needed to be treated better to removing barriers to help poor families and those from other countries better navigate the system to help their children receive the support they need.
While being credited with changing the culture of the district, Neal said she fears it could roll back to the way it was.
“I am afraid that I have not stayed long enough for the culture to really be ingrained that we are one,” she said, about treating people with dignity, respect, love and honor. "I want people to understand that sometimes people may not choose where they are in life and require a little bit of grace and understanding.”
Neal said she has not thought much about her accomplishments, reflecting more on what still needs to be achieved. However, she is proud of the things she did.
The 2015 approval of the $175 million school bond is one of those items she’s proud of. The bond money helped renovate and replace old buildings, upgrade outdated technology and improve safety.
“I knew we were never ever going to be great if my kids didn’t have new buildings and computers they deserved,” she said. “I worked hard and when the opposition came out, I worked even harder because I was not going to give up.”
Neal’s message from her first day as superintendent has been the fate of the city and schools are linked.
“I had enough patience to convince people that without Grand Rapids Public Schools there was no way we would be a great city and leave all these children behind,” Neal said. “I wanted people to love and respect the district the way that I did.”
Neal announced her retirement in September, saying she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Dennis, and their family, and pursue interests that have not been possible with the time commitment of her superintendent job.
She said that she isn’t going away and will continue to advocate for the district’s children, including her grandchildren.