Photograph by Tony Luong
A Grand Rapids Story
The statement hangs in the air.
The new year is not yet three days old. Outside, temperatures bottom in the teens. It is January 3, 2012, in West Michigan, 30 miles inland from the world’s fifth-largest lake.
On this day, Teresa Weatherall Neal is not yet superintendent of one of the state’s largest school districts. She is not yet interim superintendent. That will come the next day. She knows; the public does not.
Just two people gather at Grand Rapids Public Schools headquarters with her, trusted colleagues. A third top aide is attending business outside the building. This would be a small group.
“I need to transform this district, and to do that I need transformational leaders,” she says.
Weatherall Neal’s message, yet to be delivered to people outside this room: “I’m not just going to move chairs. I’m going to help you pack your bags.”
About a 15-minute drive away, in the headquarters of Steelcase Inc., the world’s largest office-furniture maker, discussions had already begun on how best to help the district with a history of up-and-down leadership. How could the district sustain a leadership change that would extend beyond current decision-makers? How, too, could the district move the needle on student achievement, on high dropout rates, and on families getting frustrated with dismal numbers and jumping ship for other districts or competing charter schools?
The answer for Grand Rapids was a new superintendent intent on sustaining new leadership and a local nonprofit foundation intent on helping. The method was a three-year plan that would send dozens of Grand Rapids school board members, cabinet administrators, principals, and teachers to programs at HGSE Professional Education on a range of issues, allowing them to step away from day-to-day responsibilities and think through the district’s challenges.
Jump to five years later. It is March 24, 2017, a cool day in Cambridge. Daytime temperatures are in the upper 30s. A trace of snow floated earlier. For four days, about a dozen educators and administrators from the Grand Rapids Public Schools have been attending Race, Equity, and Leadership in Schools. Weatherall Neal is one of them.
Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, Ed.M.'92, Ed.D.'95, is sharing condensed high points — the power messages — of a semester-long class she also instructs: Institutional racism is a problem in many unconsidered ways. Children react to it in ways adults do not consider. Issues of race have been present since the founding of America.
“We find ourselves in 2017 facing a whole host of issues, and not educating how we got there,” says Jewell-Sherman, former superintendent of Virginia's Richmond Public Schools and a core faculty member of the Ed School’s Doctor of Education Leadership Program.
“Race in itself is a seminal issue in education,” Jewell-Sherman says. “None of us knows enough of each other. We think we know a lot, but we make a lot of assumptions.”
Catherine Gardner, associate director of preK–16 programs at HGSE Professional Education, sat in on many of the sessions in March and remembers this being a pivotal moment for the Grand Rapids contingent.
“You could almost see the puzzle pieces fitting together,” Gardner says. “The conversation was just different. … You could really hear the zeroing in. ‘If we train principals and teachers to be leaders ... we really need this.’ There was really this moment that it came together in a far more coherent way for them … a much bigger vision of leadership and difference.”
It was the same feeling that Jessalynn Radden had after she attended a four-day New and Aspiring School Leaders institute at the Ed School in 2015. The lead teacher at Grand Rapids University Prep Academy, a 6–12 school, was among the district’s first participants to attend a program at Harvard.
“That was so powerful to just be around so many people from all around the world,” says Radden, who loops between sixth and seventh grades as a social studies teacher. “One of the best ways to learn is through dialogue.”
Looking back on those 2015 sessions, Radden says she can easily remember specific talks and experiences that helped her assess her leadership style, made her more confident in expressing her opinions, and taught her how to transfer the experience to the classroom — skills that can be difficult to hone when you don’t have time (or district support) to step away from the day-to-day of teaching.
“One of the sessions on reading reminded me of how powerful it is to give people a choice over reading,” she says. As a result, “we began walking kids to our [city] library, something teachers had done before but lost sight of. It’s small but something major, just to get kids reading again and to be excited about reading. We continue to talk about the culture of schools. We want to be able to have an experience where kids are able to express themselves.”
The path to this moment — where educators were fitting puzzle pieces together and rethinking their leadership skills — was a long one. It would originate in a balmier climate, 1,400 miles from Grand Rapids.
The school district of Palm Beach County, Florida, is the 11th-largest district in the United States, enrolling more than 188,000 students.
It also became home to office-furniture magnate Robert Pew and his wife, Mary. The prominent Grand Rapids-area residents moved to North Palm Beach in 1999. Their personal wealth followed.
Pew led Steelcase, named for an early metal desk, to its pinnacle as the largest company of its kind in the world. Your office chair, your company desk, your cubicle, furnishings at your local school or hospital, there’s a good chance they are from Steelcase. Pew was chair of the company for 25 years. He once told a protégé, “Leadership is a function of trust. Trust is a function of integrity.”
In Florida, the Pews created the Mary and Robert Pew Public Education Fund, commonly known as the Pew Fund. Its mission: “To improve public education for disadvantaged children in Palm Beach and Martin counties by developing, testing, and implementing new strategies for learning.”
Since then, the fund has awarded nearly $24 million. For the past decade, a portion has gone to develop school leaders from Palm Beach County. Executive leadership, the school board, and community members have attended multi-day programs on a range of topics offered by HGSE Professional Education.
“The impact, individually, was an incredible capstone for them. [Harvard] gave them the courage to lead,” says Louise Grant, executive director of the Pew Fund. “Cultures kind of change and become more cohesive.” That common understanding “changed the way budget people on the operating side looked at the needs of the academic side. It was an aha! moment.”
The Palm Beach County district has 187 schools and more than 12,200 teachers. There have been gains, which no one would attribute to a single effort, though Grant believes some were helped through the Harvard program.
For example, the graduation rate was 82 percent for the 2015–16 school year, up three points from the prior school year. (The rate includes all of the school district’s high schools and independently run charter schools.) The district’s strategic plan calls for a 90 percent graduation rate by 2021.
“It takes four or five years to measure changes in student achievement. Generally that’s through standardized assessment pre- and post-tests like science, math, and reading,” Grant says of the long process. “In a lot of our schools we are seeing improvements in reading.”
“It’s harder on leadership work to try and quantify it," Grant says. “I like it when we can quantify everything, but we can’t quantify everything.”
Still, building toward something matters greatly. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
He also wrote, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Julie Ridenour listened.
Ridenour is president of the Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Foundation, something of a cousin to the Pew Fund. A few years ago, Ridenour bumped into Grant. Details are hazy, maybe just a chat with two foundation leaders whose funds had similar genes.
Grant talked about grants. She mentioned the years-long practice in which the Pew Fund paid to send Palm Beach County educators to Harvard leadership programs through HGSE Professional Education. The conversation stuck. And Ridenour brought the idea home.
Grand Rapids claims one U.S. president, Gerald Ford; one astronaut who perished in the nascent Apollo program, Roger Chaffee; the current chief executive of Ford Motor Co., Jim Hackett; and the lead singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Anthony Kiedis. Not in any order.
The city is the second-largest in the state, nearly 200,000 people. Its racial and ethnic mix is white, black, and Hispanic or Latino. That is in order (59 percent, 21 percent, and 16 percent).
The city also anchors a strong economic mix; exploding health sciences, new technology start-ups, and a strong manufacturing, finance, retail, and wholesale base. There is a major medical school, a triangle of three state universities within an hour apart, and nationally strong private colleges.
The city is growing; Grand Rapids Public Schools much less so. And the racial and ethnic makeup of its students do not reflect the city. It is the reverse. Latino students are in the majority, 36 percent. Blacks make up 32 percent, followed by whites, 23 percent, according to the Michigan Department of Education’s April 2017 report.
Educators know that the color of a student’s skin does not determine his or her ability to learn. But school choice in the district has led to lopsided demographics — student numbers not reflecting the city’s overall numbers. It’s also led to lower enrollment for the district’s traditional public schools. Thirty-nine percent of public school students in the city are enrolled in other districts or charters, a 2016 analysis by MLIVE.com news found. That does not include private school enrollments.
In recent years, enrollment in the Grand Rapids district was nearly 17,000 students, seventh-largest in the state. That is down more than 3,000 students from 10 years ago, though there are signs enrollment is stabilizing. Unfortunately, student losses have translated to financial losses for the district, as Weatherall Neal told MLIVE.com in 2016.
“Over the last 20 years, we have cut more than 1,000 jobs, closed more than 25 schools, and we’ve cut $100 million from our budget,” she said. “Every year we had to do layoffs and move people around. It was chaos in the district, and parents decided no more.” At one point, when more than 1,000 students left, she said it cost the district nearly $8 million.
Where do the students go? Most enroll in other districts through the state’s School of Choice program, which allows parents to send kids to other schools either within their district or outside their district if space is open. They also enroll in competing charter schools. The Grand Rapids region is home to one of the largest for-profit, charter-school empires in the nation, National Heritage Academies. It is also home to new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The lifelong resident is a prominent school-choice advocate. Against this backdrop, Palm Beach County came to Grand Rapids, and the school district went to Harvard.
Mary Jo Kuhlman, assistant superintendent of organizational learning in Grand Rapids, remembers learning of the Palm Beach/Harvard collaboration during a quarterly meeting of district officials and various philanthropic interests. Ridenour, the Steelcase Foundation president, told Kuhlman what she had learned in Florida.
The proverbial ball began rolling.
Ronald Gorman, who attended several of the programs at the Ed School, uses a distinctly Michigan reference to illustrate how great leadership needs to be sustained, but not with any one leader.
“Lee Iacocca comes in and saves the day. Right?” says Gorman, Grand Rapids’ assistant superintendent of preK–12 instructional support.
Yes, then no. Iacocca, the Big Three auto icon, is widely regarded as the savior of Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s. Iacocca had a philosophy about leadership. “You can do the work of two people, but you can’t be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.”
That did not happen. After Iacocca retired, Chrysler suffered what is seen as a subsequent lack of vision and changed ownership.
It is this need for a seamless transition of commonly trained and inspired leadership that is at the core of the Steelcase/Grand Rapids effort with the Ed School. It is the desire not to be a Chrysler, but something more akin to a sports car — high performance, head turning, state of the art.
In April 2015, the Steelcase Foundation approved $597,000 for the district over three years for the Grand Rapids Public Schools Leadership Development program. The model is specifically designed to adapt the experiences of the Palm Beach County schools and the Pew Fund. The last payment was released on January 10 though an additional two years of funding are an option. In those three years, nearly 70 cabinet members, administrators, principals, and teachers attended a dozen programs.
The sessions were chosen by administrators based on Ed School recommendations. Project outcomes were also defined ahead of time. One important goal included building leadership by identifying roles and styles required to improve the “instructional core”; considering beliefs, cultural changes, and education strategies to promote high student achievement; reflecting on the effects of race, class, and culture within the district. Another goal states that participants would implement approaches to ensure inclusion of all students; implement practices to close the achievement gap; establish means for collaboration between district departments and schools; develop a plan for sharing lessons learned with other district leaders and to complement succession planning.
Programs in 2016 and 2017 included the Harvard Institute for Superintendents and District Leaders, Family Engagement in Education, School Turnaround Leaders, and the Institute for Urban School Leaders.
In a December 2016 progress report to the Steelcase Foundation, the Grand Rapids district outlined early progress, particularly around professional growth. For starters, the year’s 49 participants were polled and universally were enthusiastic about the programs. “The experience was inspiring, reflective, humbling,” said assistant principal Harvey Crawley. David Dublis, a creative arts specialist, said, “It was rich with current and relevant information on how to improve the climate and culture in our school building. ... I was able to spend time reflecting on my own practice.” And Mulonge Kalumbula, a world languages supervisor, said, “I was moved by Deborah Jewell-Sherman’s session, which affirmed my belief that demography isn’t destiny and that leadership matters.”
During their time in the programs, attendees embraced concepts such as the three Ms — mission, mindset, and methods. Another popular concept was “the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution,” first enunciated by famed physicist Albert Einstein.
And tangible results for the district? Graduation rates are up nearly 50 percent over the past five years, from 45 percent to 66 percent in 2016. That’s still below the statewide average of 80 percent but improving. Dropout rates are down from 23 to 13 percent in the same period. Chronic absenteeism, a serious district problem, fell a reported 25 percent.
No one in the district attributes those numbers just to new and better leadership through HGSE Professional Education, saying it’s too early in the process, but as Kuhlman notes, “Harvard changed the way we approach leadership, the way we approach great teachers and teaching.”
Steelcase’s Ridenour calls the improvements “low-hanging fruit,” meaning among the first to be obtained. From that, she says, “We’re starting to get some green shoots in the district.”
Teacher Kelly Leightner paces past desks. She has been doing this for 28 years. Most tables have four kindergarten students, 27 total today.
The current lesson is about reading and writing, a dash of math tossed in, much more complex than a casual observer can follow.
This is the smartest class anywhere. That’s what the children say. That’s what they’ve been taught.The teacher asks them. They respond,“Yes!”
Justin has a sprout of brown, splashing, every-direction hair. His eyes are blue — not Caribbean blue, Pacific blue. He smiles and asks a visitor a question, and adds something more.
“I talk a lot,” he says, in a true statement. The visitor responds, “I can tell.”The alphabet marches above his head. There are letters across a long wall, animals underneath each letter. There is an elephant beneath an E. A cat for C. A dolphin swims left, not right, against the alphabet, for a D. A zebra, last in the alphabet menagerie, leads the characters.
Many children wear orange shirts, like a tiger, the school mascot. This is a uniformed school. Orange or dark blue shirts, dark pants or skirts.
Now is pencil-check time. Leightner was away the earlier Friday. There are few pencils in the green, plastic, herring-boned holder near the sharpener. She comments that a monster must have taken many pencils and that she will do a check at day’s end. Perhaps half the children empty from their black seats. Some have two pencils in their fists. They return to their seats.
Leightner, who raises eight children of her own, threads her roughly six-year-old learners through their rubric. How to write a sentence. How to capitalize. How to punctuate. How does every single sentence end? A period? A question mark? An exclamation point? “Yes,” they shout, and more.
It is “turn-and-talk” time. There are two girls and two boys at most tables, mostly black, many Latino. The students are problem-solving. Chatter, cacophony. This is learning.
At a middle table, Layla seems shy. She writes her sentence in pencil, then pauses. She needs a moment to concentrate, then finishes the sentence and is on to the next.
She is the superintendent’s granddaughter. Her family chose to stay in the district.“I want to be an author,” she says in response to a visitor’s question.
Writing about what?
“Fairytales,” she says.
John Barnes is a Grand Rapids writer and former reporter and editor.
Photographs by Tony Luong