Graduates of Ferris State University’s College of Arts, Sciences and Education, Doctorate in Community College Leadership, College of Pharmacy and University College (Retention and Student Success) will be joined at their commencement ceremony on Friday, May 10 by Teresa Weatherall Neal, a leader whose lifetime dedication to her hometown school district was a significant factor in the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ rebound from troubled times.
She will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service from the university during the commencement exercise that begins at 7 p.m. Weatherall Neal, who began her work with the GRPS as a teen-aged co-op student employee, will retire on July 1 with 44 years of service to the district, including the last seven as superintendent.
“I have very mixed feelings about retirement as it comes closer,” Weatherall Neal said. “I am excited for the future, but it is still hard, because I am committed to the students of GRPS and working to give them every chance to learn and succeed.”
Weatherall Neal had been assistant superintendent of community and student affairs for seven years before she assumed interim leadership duties in 2011, with a goal of restoring confidence in the GRPS. The system had suffered with years of declining enrollment and the need to change public perception. She prioritized collaborative efforts to bring about more positive outcomes.
“I feel blessed that in the last several years we have been able to involve Ferris State University and many other community partners who buy into the strong belief system and transformational plan that seeks to benefit all of our students,” Weatherall Neal said. “Ferris President David Eisler is one of my thought partners, a ready and willing resource to offer input without and provide insights on so many subjects. We have traveled together to share our considerations of new methods and best practices. I believe this has our district, and helps Ferris in fulfilling its mission.”
Highlights of the district’s transformational plan include stabilizing enrollment, beginning in 2016, following over a dozen years of population declines for the system. Weatherall Neal said GRPS has seen improvement in its graduation rates and a reduction in chronic absenteeism.
One of the first commitments Ferris made to support a GRPS turnaround involved the Challenge Scholars program, in concert with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Along with that, parents at Harrison Park Elementary were offered Care 102, a three-credit class that served as a pilot program in career exploration.
“We have sustained this offering through the years, so that families are prepared to offer students the support they need in this important time of their lives,” Weatherall Neal said. “It speaks to Ferris’ awareness of preparing students for the journey that learning represents.”
More recently, Ferris has worked to establish the Teacher Cadet program, which is wrapping up its first year by supporting 19 ninth-graders at GRPS’ Academy of Teaching and Learning. Participants who continue to Ferris will arrive with 12 credits earned, through dual enrollment instruction.
“I will be very excited to see what develops from this opportunity, offering our students the chance to enter a career pipeline that would benefit our district, and themselves,” Weatherall Neal said. “It is great that Ferris offered itself as a resource to help us address a critical need for teachers, which should bring them to the university, and we hope, back to our ranks to serve in the classroom.”
Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University has been part of the collaboration with other educational, civic and business entities in support of the GRPS Museum School, which began operations with middle school instruction in 2015 and entered into high school instruction, with ninth graders in the Fall 2018.
“There has been a continual stream of support from Ferris’ staff, who have been wonderfully responsive across the history of the Museum School project,” Weatherall Neal said. “We get together several times a year, and this collaboration is focused on helping GRPS students consider design thinking, accentuated through place-based education.”
Weatherall Neal has an Associate of Arts, Sciences and Education degree from Grand Rapids Community College, her Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration from Grand Valley State University and a Master of Education from Western Michigan University.
Also receiving honorary doctorates at Ferris’ Spring 2019 commencement ceremonies are Michael Shibler, Rockford Schools superintendent and Ferris alumnus Tim Murphy, the former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Approximately 1,900 Ferris students will participate in the Spring 2019 commencement ceremonies on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11 in Big Rapids.