Inside Track: Superintendent finds her way to top

GRPS graduation rates top Leadriane Roby’s list of priorities as she settles into leadership role.
Leadriane Roby is taking on a student intern this summer as part of the city’s youth employment program. Photo by Danielle Nelson

While most Grand Rapids Public Schools students are enjoying a free-spirited summer, one GRPS high school student is spending part of her summer under the tutelage of Dr. Leadriane Roby, the district’s superintendent.

Just a little over a year into her tenure as the head of the city’s school district, Roby has opted to take part in Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington’s GRow1000 youth employment program, where she is providing an internship opportunity to a GRPS student so they can see and experience what it is like to be a school superintendent.

“I want a young person to see what executives do, what the work looks like because you don’t just (fall) into these positions,” she said. “I want them to understand that for most people you have a career path where you start out doing something and then you get some gradual, incremental promotions. I want them to understand that, because part of the internship experience is getting exposure to different levels of what a career is, but to also understand that for most people, we grow in our careers through promotions and education and this is what it looks like.”

The internship experience was not an opportunity that was afforded to her while she attended high school in Minnesota, but it is an opportunity Roby is willing to provide for her students.

A career in education was never a path she imagined she would pursue going into her freshman year at Hampton University in Virginia. Roby had the intention of becoming an attorney, a trial attorney to be precise. Her choice was heavily influenced by the television show “L.A. Law,” but that quickly changed when she started college.

“When I was watching the TV show ‘L.A. Law,’ I would say, ‘That is going to be me when I grow up.’ I am going to put people on trial and cross-examine them, but when I went to college, I took a prerequisite — I think it was a philosophy course where we were studying Socrates and Aristotle — and it was just not of any great interest to me,” she said. “I remember talking to my college counselor at the time saying, ‘Can I switch to a different class?’ and he said, ‘If you are switching to a different class, you know this is a prerequisite to get you ready for a career in law?’ And he asked me, ‘What else do you want to do?’ and I had to really think about it. I told him that I am most interested in working with kids. I like kids and I decided to switch to education.”

Roby had family members who were teachers. Her mother, who was a nurse, transitioned into the education field and became a nurse instructor at a local community college. Roby also got to observe her aunt who was a teacher and watch her gradually move up the ladder to become an assistant principal and later a principal.

Grand Rapids Public Schools
Position: Superintendent
Age: 54
Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband Steven, daughter Tayler, and sons Julian and Cedric
Business/Community Involvement: Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Heart of West Michigan United Way
Biggest Career Break: To be the superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools. “I take this job with a lot of humility. I am very humbled and very honored that I have been entrusted to lead this organization. I have always thought of myself as a leader from the beginning of my career by leading in my classroom, trying to mentor and model the young people that I am working with. At the building level, it was the same thing, by working with staff to mentor and model the expectations. But to lead an organization this size is a huge task, and I don’t take it lightly. I am appreciative of the board for having trust that I can do this work as a new superintendent.”

Once Roby graduated, the St. Louis native spent seven years as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools. She was a third-grade teacher for three years, a second-grade teacher for two years and the remaining years she was a fifth- and sixth-grade classroom teacher.

During that time, she also was working on her master’s degree in education administration at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Following her stint as a teacher, Roby became a professional development coordinator, leading the professional development of Minneapolis Public Schools’ teachers. She later became an assistant principal for a school in the district.

In 2001, Roby moved to Michigan to become the principal at Covert Middle/High School, which is about 65 miles south of Grand Rapids. She spent about five years at the middle/high school before becoming the principal of an elementary school in the Covert Public Schools for five years as she worked on her doctorate at Western Michigan University.

“As I was working on my doctorate, I needed a little bit more time,” she said. “High school principalship is an extremely grinding kind of role. It is dances and games and proms. There are always, always evening events, and I really wanted to work on my doctorate. I needed a little bit more flexibility, so I asked the superintendent at the time if she would consider moving me to the elementary level. Because as an elementary principal, you still have evening events like concerts and things like that, but it is nowhere near the high school principal life because almost every night you are doing something as a high school principal. And I was thinking, ‘I will never finish my degree.’ So, I moved to the elementary level and I was able to take classes at night and work on my doctorate.”

After completing her doctorate course, Roby decided to move back to Minnesota to be closer to her family. While in Minnesota, she returned to Minneapolis Public Schools and became principal of a pre-K-8 grade program. During her first year as principal, Roby completed her dissertation and earned her Ph.D.

She was later tapped by the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools to become the assistant associate superintendent, while still maintaining her role as principal. With the new position, Roby had her building where she was responsible for about 1,000 students, 110 staff members and she supervised other building principals in the school district.

“What I appreciated about that is I knew how to do the building-level leadership, but now I was doing district-level leadership and I was also in charge of a small cadre of schools,” she said. “I had five schools. I was working very closely with those principals who were newer to Minneapolis and since Minneapolis was home to me, even though I was new in the leadership role, it was still home for me. I was able to work with them to develop their strategic plan and show them how to work with staff and how to work on issues that sometimes can be sticky like issues between staff or students and staff. I would also work with them around their assessment data and how to report it out to the community. I did that for a year.”

In 2014, Roby became the assistant superintendent of Richfield Public Schools, a neighboring district to Minneapolis Public Schools. She primarily focused on teaching and learning, but she also was responsible for summer schools, preschools, community education, bond referendums, professional development for teachers and building principals in the district.

However, Roby said she and the superintendent had an understanding that she would only stay in the position for three to five years because she had her own aspirations of becoming a superintendent in a metropolitan district.

After six years, Roby began exploring open opportunities. She found out late that the now-former superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal was retiring, and GRPS already was conducting a national search for its next superintendent.

Fortunately for Roby, the initial search was not successful and Dr. Ron Gorman, who was serving as the assistant superintendent under Neal, became the interim superintendent. Roby became aware of a second search that was being conducted and decided to apply.

She was selected as the superintendent in February, and three weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Roby didn’t assume her position until July 1. Between February and July, Roby was still the assistant superintendent for Richfield Public Schools, but she said she and Gorman were able to share ideas and establish plans to provide effective education for students during the heart of the pandemic.

Now with a year under her belt, Roby said she is looking to continue the upward trend in GRPS’ graduation rate that her predecessors began.

“GRPS for the first time this last year exceeded the state’s graduation rate,” she said. “I am extremely proud of that. We had 81% of students graduating on time, but the other side of that story is 19% of our kids are not graduating on time. We have to close that gap. I would love to see 100% of our kids graduate on time. That is my goal. We also want to prepare our kids not only to get across the stage but to prepare them during the 13 years that they have been with us to ensure that they have a plan for how to be successful moving forward.”

This summer’s student internship is just a start.

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