During a Feb. 24 school board meeting, Grand Rapids Public Schools named Leadriane Roby the new district superintendent. ( Photo: Richfield Public Schools)
Leadriane Roby was in a meeting when she found out she got the job of Grand Rapids Public Schools superintendent. The excitement is still in her voice when she talks about that moment.
“‘Ahhh!’ That’s what I was doing internally,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I got it.’"
Roby, currently assistant superintendent for Richfield Public Schools in Minnesota, has 20-plus years of education experience. She earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in K-12 Educational Leadership from Western Michigan University.
“I’m extremely excited personally, and I think as a board we’re excited,” said school board president Kristian Grant. “There’s a lot more work to be done but we’re headed in the right direction, and I believe we have a superintendent that we’re excited about.”
The Grand Rapids Board of Education voted 7-2 to make Roby its next leader during a meeting Monday, Feb. 24. The board is in the process of negotiating her contract.
Former superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal retired in June of 2019. Since July 1, the district’s assistant superintendent of Pre-K-12 Institutional Support, Ronald Gorman, has served as interim superintendent.
Last April after interviewing two finalists for superintendent, the school board voted 6 to 3 to restart the search process. Members said the candidates didn’t have all the qualities they were looking for.
Roby, 52, said she followed the initial search and was frustrated when she discovered the job posting too late to apply. When she saw the position was opened again, she jumped at the chance.
“I know that the school board is extremely reflective and very thoughtful about who they want to work with and who they see leading this district," Roby said.
"I’m honored and I’m humbled by that, but I’m also just like a 10-year-old getting a brand new bike. Like ‘Oh this is so exciting I can’t wait to get to work and start riding it.’”
Roby’s district in Minnesota has 4,385 students compared to GRPS’s significantly larger district of 15,349 students, as of the October. GRPS is the largest district in West Michigan.
However, Roby said there are parallels between the two districts. Richfield, being a suburb of Minneapolis, brings a diverse group of students to the district, she said.
Both are made up of about 70 percent students of color. Roby said a lot of the work that has been done in Grand Rapids -- like ensuring students have a post-secondary plan -- is similar to what she has been doing in Richfield.
“I’ve led a lot of that work with my team about, if we’re saying we want all of our kids to have a successful post-secondary life once they leave us, what are we doing structurally and academically to ensure that we’ve put those foundational pieces in place?” she said.
Among her significant contributions to the Richfield district, Roby points to overseeing a district that speaks over 35 languages, leading the initial launch of Quality Compensation for Teachers, and leading two successful campaigns that got voters to increase school funding by $450 per student along with $89 million in bonds for school facility improvements.
“Dr. Roby has been an amazing asset to Richfield Public Schools and we have benefited from her exceptional leadership for the past six years,” said Richfield Superintendent Steven Unowsky.
“She has overseen and led a wide range of improvements for our district and has been an incredible asset to the students, staff and families.”
The teachers union of GRPS considers Roby’s appointment a victory.
“Definitely, the teachers were behind her,” said Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association.
“I saw her as an educator. And she understands the job of being a teacher. She came across as more collaborative, more open, more willing to work with the teachers. I mean, all levels, but really seemed to understand exactly what we do."
Before going to the Richfield Public School district, Roby was a principal for more than a decade. She spent 10 years at Covert Public Schools in Michigan, first as the grades 6-12 principal and then as the PreK-5 principal.
While leading the 6-12 grades, Roby said she increased overall on-time graduation rates and created a teacher-mentoring program that she said resulted in greater retention of teachers.
At the elementary school, Roby said she provided training for teachers and support staff, created a summer school, after-school and extended day programs, and co-created the Southwest Michigan Alliance of Black School Educators Annual Professional Seminar.
Roby started out her education career in Minneapolis, first as a teacher for six years and then as a Success for All Coordinator for a year before becoming an assistant principal in Minneapolis Public Schools.
Roby is married with three grown children, Tayler, 32, Julian, 26, Cedric, 22. She said she enjoys being outside in the spring and summer and is an avid walker. She gets up almost every morning to walk around the Mall of America before it opens.
While Roby loves being an educator now, her two decade career in education almost didn’t happen.
Roby initially started out with an eye for law school, but she said she realized it was not the right fit for her during a class in college.
“It was kind of one of those ‘ah ha’ moments of I don’t know if I can do that,” she said.
At the time, Roby was the director of an after-school latchkey program and realized she liked working with kids, creating lesson plans and being creative. She said that sparked her interest in teaching.
“I really liked being around students, I really liked engaging with them,” she said. “Even today, I am just tickled with some of the stuff that kids will share with you.”