Taylor Brings Enthusiasm

September 18, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — With enthusiasm that can barely be contained, Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. says there’s nothing to keep him from being optimistic about the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I have no reason not to be optimistic,” he said. “The conditions are right for something really good to happen.”

Taylor, who started his tenure in July following the retirement of Bert Bleke, said he believes Grand Rapids has a lot to be proud of in its schools, and he wants people to see it the way he does.

Taylor said school is off to a good start, and he is excited to continue showing people what the Grand Rapids Public Schools have to offer.

“We had a very good beginning and a great kickoff,” he said. “What we’re looking at is how we can help people to make GRPS their choice, because it’s my choice.”

Before starting the position, Taylor said, he spent time in the district with Bleke and the district staff.

“I had the benefit of a four-month transition period, so when I came in on the first day, this was familiar,” he said.

Taylor said he is impressed with the district’s staff and administration.

“They’re a very capable group of individuals,” he said.

Though he said his leadership style has varied by situation, Taylor said he is looking forward to hearing input from the community and those in the district.

“I’ve been in situations where my leadership style had to be very situational,” he said. “This situation is markedly different.”

Taylor has already heard from the board about their priorities regarding school safety, student achievement and marketing the district, which he said are in line with his own.

“We’re operating with the same ideas in mind,” he said.

He said the district is one where progress can be made if people are involved and engaged.

“I think that this school district has more strengths than it gives itself credit for having,” he said. “This is not a school district of last resort.”

Telling the story of the district is important to Taylor, who said he was impressed with the number of construction projects and improvements outside of new construction. He said the projects show the district’s worth and dedication to the students.

“This is a school district that has well-maintained facilities, well-maintained grounds,” he said. “There is a commitment to continuing to do that.”

Compared to his recent school district in Missouri, Taylor said the Grand Rapids Public Schools has had more financial support from the community, something to which Taylor is not accustomed.

“I think this district is in a better academic situation than was Kansas City. They haven’t passed a bond or levy in 40-plus years,” he said. “I never even thought about it.”

In Grand Rapids, the bond issue has already passed, and Taylor said that brought him hope when learning about the school district. He added that the district not only has built its buildings on time, but also under budget.

“Not only did we do what we said we’re going to do, but we saved money doing it,” he said.

Now that he has seen the worth of the district and its potential, Taylor said his job is to get the word out to parents and show them what they can expect from the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I think we can provide a significant amount of choice for parents if they just give us the opportunity to prove that we’re worthy to serve their children,” he said.

Taylor said the increased numbers of students coming into the district is a promising sign.

The district’s unique, academically accelerated Montessori and environmental programs are successful and help retain those parents who believe their children are better served by these programs, Taylor said. But he also is impressed with the way administrators are working to do more.

“They’re not content to rest on their laurels of success,” he said. “They’re popular because they continue to excel.”

Though the programs have their merits, Taylor said, they are not receiving special attention or treatment.

“I think we have to make sure that they are not first among equals,” he said. “Those schools have an objective to push kids even further to excel.”

While academics are important, Taylor said, it is also important to look at the students’ place in the community. As the city is experiencing violence in several of its neighborhoods, Taylor stressed it was not coming from students, but said that the school system was aware of the issues and working on ways to help the students before violence happens.

“We’ve got to do it when the students are with us,” he said. “Look at ways to mediate conflict so they don’t get out of hand.”

Taylor said the students can be a source of information.

“Kids will tell you when something is going to happen,” he said.

While it is important for the students to be good members of the community, Taylor said, he is pleased with the community’s involvement and partnership with the students and district. He said he is particularly impressed with Mayor George Heartwell and his wife, Susan.

“They really care about the community and they care about the school district, and it shows,” he said.

Heartwell said he also was impressed with Taylor and his start with the district.

“He brings a great energy and enthusiasm to the job, and that’s contagious,” Heartwell said.

Heartwell said that when Bleke was superintendent, the public schools and the city shared a good relationship, and he is hopeful the same thing will happen with Bleke’s successor.

Heartwell said he and Taylor have had a good relationship from the start.

“He picked up where Bert Bleke and I left off,” he said.

Heartwell said he believes Taylor’s goal of promoting the schools in Grand Rapids and showing the area what the district has to offer will benefit the city, as well.

“We can’t be a great city if we don’t have strong public schools. We are joined at the hip, or we should be, and we weren’t before,” Heartwell said, speaking of the time before his tenure as mayor. “It will, in the long run, both improve education opportunities for our children, and it will improve the quality of life in the city.”

Though he would like to see more parents involved in the schools, Taylor said he understands that not all parents can be available to help out.

“Sometimes a lot of that has to do with flexibility, it has to do with preparation, it has to do with confidence,” he said.

Taylor said he wants to do his best to address at least one of those issues — confidence. He said he would like to have the schools be a place where parents can feel comfortable and welcome, and he would like to cultivate better relationships between the district and the parents.

Taylor spoke of his previous work at schools where 100 percent of the children were on free or reduced lunches, but socioeconomic status did not prevent parents, grandparents and relatives from being a part of the schools.

“I could count on having an overflow of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles,” he said of asking for volunteers for field trips or activities.

As for the community, Taylor said the best way for people to support the schools is to send their children there.

“If I can get them in the door, I know we can serve them well,” he said.

Taylor, originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., said he is living in the PlazaTowers until he can find a permanent living situation within the city.

Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in public administration, and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools from 1989 to 1993, before serving as dean of students at the Prospect Multicultural Center in the public schools from 1993 to 1995, and then as principal of the West Side Traditional Academy in Pittsburgh from 1995 to 1997.

He also served as the principal of Weil Technology Institute from 1997 to 2000 before becoming the executive director for school leadership in the Kansas City, Mo., school district from 2000 to 2001. He then served as the superintendent for the district until coming to Grand Rapids.

Taylor said he was active in the community in Kansas City, and he intends to do the same here. His intent to be highly visible and approachable has been evident by his door-to-door neighborhood visits this summer and his activity among organizations in the area.

“I just don’t know any other way to be,” he said of his high visibility both in the schools and throughout the community.

“I think it’s an exciting time,” he said. “It’s a new beginning, but it’s a new beginning that has a good foundation.”    

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