It’s been five years since Teresa Weatherall Neal assumed the office of superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, and in that time, she’s overseen some major changes.
In her fifth State of Our Schools address on Tuesday, Neal revisited those changes, highlighting the success of the GRPS Transformation Plan and other initiatives in creating a sense of stability within the district.
She cited the 12 percent increase in graduation rates in the last four years, including a 21 percent increase among African-American students and a 14 percent increase for Hispanic and Latino students.
While GRPS is on the rise, Neal said, there is still a lot of work to be done to continue that trend.
“We built a solid foundation in these last four to five years,” Neal said. “Now we need to keep building on it.”
Neal went on to announce several initiatives that would do just that — including a Bring Our Kids Home campaign designed to recruit students to GRPS. The initiative will include grassroots tactics like door-to-door campaigns and hosting house parties in Grand Rapids neighborhoods to engage with potential future students and their families.
“For the first time in more than two decades, we are on the offensive,” Neal said.
Fueling GRPS’ offensive charge are several projects that will grow the district’s educational offerings. Construction to expand the C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy Middle-High School campus and renovations at two Grand Rapids Public Museum locations should be completed by the start of next school year.
Neal said the district is in conversations about the future home of the Southwest Community Campus High School, and is in the process of transforming Coit Creative Academy into a Primary Years International Baccalaureate World School by fall 2018. GRPS also will look to expand the international baccalaureate program to Sherwood Park Global Studies Academy and will explore the possibility of reopening the vacant Ridgemoor School as a Montessori school.
To cover the costs of renovating the former Public Museum building at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE and the fourth floor of the Van Andel Museum Center, and the money needed for the international baccalaureate program at Coit, Neal announced the district would kick off a $15 million fundraising campaign with the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation.
Neal also provided Grand Rapids taxpayers with some good news when she pledged that GRPS will not seek renewal of the $1 million “warm, safe and dry” millage in November, saving the average taxpayer about $60 per year.
GRPS will use bond proceeds for the next five years to support the sinking fund, although Neal acknowledged when the fund dries up, there will be a need to revisit the issue and ask for support of a new millage.
“It is essential for ongoing maintenance and upkeep of our facilities and technology,” Neal said. “My hope is that the state legislature will have amended the law by then, making technology a permissible expense for warm, safe and dry funds.”
Neal concluded her address with an assurance that these new initiatives aren’t just being piled on to the Transformation Plan, or a start to a brand new plan.
“We are building on the foundation that we have set firmly for the last few years,” she said. “We have the will, we have the knowledge, we have dynamic educators and supporters, and we have the grit to prepare our children to be wonderful, awesome leaders.”