GRPS: a remarkable reversal of trends

November 7, 2014
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Grand Rapids Public Schools last month announced a reversal of trends and, in fact, likely set a record to be matched among Michigan’s urban public school districts. The city’s public schools had the best head count day in 20 years, which assures improved state funding based on enrollment.

What happened next is the big news: With increased revenue of $2.2 million for the 2014-15 school year, the district allocated more than $1 million to its fund balance. There’s more: In negotiation with four employee union groups, GRPS announced, “We are able to do a step increase, plus a percentage.”

It is notable that Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor already had increased the district’s bond rating from negative to stable — amidst budget cuts of more than $100 million and 25 school closings, and in the first year of its new Transformation Plan.

The Business Journal finds it worthy to remark on the fact that an urban public school district has created an improved and still improving education environment to which parents are reacting with favor. It steadied the fund balance and rather than squandering pay raises for administration, shared increases with all employees while challenging them to become champions of student retention and recruitment, and then recognized those efforts with 2 percent pay increases.

The Business Journal also notes that graduation rates have consistently improved and could jump as much as another 10 percent in the current school year. Such achievement would be the first in Michigan, and likely in the U.S.

College ACT scores also have improved, to the third-highest ACT composite score growth in the country.

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal praised staff and the board of education for the efforts showing success, but the Business Journal notes such relationships are the result of leadership and Weatherall Neal’s ability to build trust — not just within the school system but with an entire community.

She was deservedly recognized as the Region 3 Superintendent of the Year by the Michigan Association of School Administrators. GRPS Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs John Helmholdt told the Business Journal: “This administration, this superintendent, this board of education are united in support of our talent, in support of all of our teachers, school leaders and support staff, and we are investing in them. We are investing for the growth and the stability of Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

Sound familiar? It’s a common mantra among business leaders.

Just two years ago GRPS began walking the words of its Transformation Plan and has been unwavering in its implementation. Weatherall Neal gave the community praise for countless hours spent in neighborhood and school board meetings to participate in framing the document.

“I think we are a smart community,” she said. “We all knew it made sense, it was very strategic, and I know that in this community we are willing to make those hard calls — and the Transformation Plan was hard.”

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