A plan to heal

Long-time deputy superintendent appointed as superintendent

After the Board of Education voted to appoint him as the next superintendent of the Grosse Pointe Public School System, Jon Dean admitted he spent a sleepless night.

“When you’re seeking a new job and then you finally get it, which is what happened last night, what I find myself doing is I’m thinking about all the things I’m excited to do,” he said.

The former high school math teacher in him couldn’t resist separating his feelings into percentages — two thirds excitement and one third apprehension.

The excitement has to do with “the opportunities in our district,” he said.

The apprehension involves the amount of healing that needs to occur — a concern he addressed as part of the community engagement plan he presented to the board during his finalist interview Wednesday night.

Dean began formulating his plan earlier that day during his building tours, taking the opportunity while meeting with principals, staff, parents and students to listen. He didn’t take notes, but he looked for general themes.

Deputy Superintendent Jon Dean poses here with his tour guide at Ferry Elementary School, Caleb Hoenicke. During his interview with the board, Dean described spending time with students, staff, principals and parents as “a gift.” Photo courtesy of Jodie Randazzo

From students, he heard how much they love their school.

Several teachers questioned whether the administration knows what they do every day. They also wondered whether the board and administration considered them when making decisions.

Staff members reflected on how teaching and working during the pandemic is exhausting and how they are looking forward to the end of the year.

Parents and teachers wanted to know how they can make sure next year is better and whether the board is prepared to listen to their concerns.

Dean is a planner, so he’s already planning how to address these concerns and listen more. For example, even before he officially takes the helm as superintendent on July 1, he hopes to schedule a series of internal meetings and host listening sessions for parents and other community members.

He also hopes to gather student input. In fact, when he met with Grosse Pointe North and Grosse Pointe Student Association presidents during his visits on Wednesday, each discussed inviting him back for further discussion.

Jon Dean meets Bugsy, a pet guinea pig in Cheryl Briggs’ second grade classroom at Richard, as part of his tour of all the school buildings. “It was a fun moment,” he said. Photo courtesy of John Kernan

Internally, Dean plans to visit each school building “to chat with any staff member or teacher who wants to sit down and share with me,” he said. “I have already reached out to our five union presidents to schedule a time to sit down with them.”

He also has scheduled meetings next week with all the building principals.

“Before the school year is over, even though I’m not the superintendent, there’s no reason I can’t make myself available,” Dean said. “I’m going to start reaching out. That part of the healing plan is going to start now. It started yesterday. And we’re going to keep rolling with that for the rest of the year.”

Learning curve

A new superintendent coming in to Grosse Pointe from another school district would need to spend time getting to know the staff and parents, the school culture and history, and the intricacies of its internal operations.

As Deputy Superintendent for Educational Services, Dean has spent nine years preparing for the role and can hit the ground running.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be a learning curve. For Dean, one adjustment will be to break away from the detail-oriented work he has focused on as a deputy superintendent and take on the mantle of leader.

“There’s a lot of things I do in the district and I get joy out of many of them,” he said. “But that isn’t what I’m doing anymore. I have to move past this. The district now is asking me to do something different.”

What he will miss most in his current role is his involvement in the hiring process for teachers and administrators.

“I’m really proud of that work,” he said.

What he most looks forward to in his new role is “stepping back and doing some of the collective vision, mission-making things, global picture things,” he said. “That’s something that’s pretty exciting. It’s going to be different, but everybody can use a change.”

Community engagement

A major part of this will be to engage the community and initiate an inclusive strategic planning process, as he outlined in his community engagement plan. He projects proposing a final plan to the Board of Education by December 2021.

The community, in turn, will need to get to know Dean in his new role. Whether it’s monthly coffees or informal outdoor gatherings, this process will involve honest, authentic conversation to examine the fractures in the community and their root causes. As he explained in his presentation, these include the fact the community has divided into a series of camps pitting one group against another; the pain of reconfiguration, which continues to weigh on the community and district; the lack of formal and informal communication structures to assure stakeholders they have been heard; and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Getting acquainted

One question Dean asked in his presentation was: “How can we humanize the groups of people in our district?”

This begins with getting to know the man at the helm beyond what community members are familiar with from his tenure as deputy superintendent.

Dean was born and raised on the west side of Detroit. Both his parents were teachers in the Detroit Public Schools. After they left teaching, they became small business owners.

His wife, Sally, grew up in Royal Oak and the two met at Wayne State University outside of biology class. He was a sophomore and she was a freshman. They married three years later and will celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary next week.

Sally is in her fifth year as a preschool teacher in the district, currently at Monteith Elementary School, and previously taught in special education, as a paraprofessional and with homebound students. They have two children — Alex, a junior at MSU majoring in criminal justice and psychology; and Noah, a junior at North.

They enjoy hiking as a family and Dean and his son typically begin the summer on a variety of backpacking adventures. One time they hiked 36 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Dean also enjoys running and has completed four marathons. He and his kids share their love of Detroit sports teams and Dean said he has a “deep affinity” for the Detroit City Football Club — in fact, so much so, he is a part owner. (“There are literally thousands of us,” he explained.)

Among other little-known facts about him is that he is a big fan of the Seattle-based rock group Pearl Jam. In 2018, he took his family to see them perform at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

“My wife and I typically get to one or two concerts a year,” he said. “I like Pearl Jam a whole lot. Because I play it around the house, I thought it would be great to have my kids’ first rock concert be with their parents.”

On a quieter night, when not rocking out to Pearl Jam, Dean enjoys playing board games, especially The Settlers of Catan, with family and friends.

Looking ahead

What Dean looks forward to most in the future is something everyone can agree on — a return to a sense of normalcy.

“One of the reasons COVID was one of the hardest and saddest times in my life was the things that give me joy like hugging my mom or having a meal with my extended family or spending time with kids in a classroom — none of those things were things I could do,” he said.

He noted he is optimistic about the year ahead.

“We are coming to what I think is going to be an incredibly exciting school year for 2021-22. I think it’s going to be an incredibly joyful start to the school year and I’m looking forward to that.”

New non-profit looks to build for the future

“The future is what we make it.”

This statement is emblazoned on one of the website pages introducing Grosse Pointe Alumni and Friends, a new non-profit organization on the horizon to support the Grosse Pointe Public School System for generations to come.

A small group of Grosse Pointe residents have set out to create that future and invite others to join them. Their mission is to ensure the excellence and viability of the school system not only in the near term, but in perpetuity.

Six board members — Irena Politano, Gina Gabel, Tom Nixon, Katie Horst, Mandy Koop and Scott Smith — are leading the charge.

“We’ve been meeting and talking about this for about two years,” Politano said. “We legally organized in February (2020) as a non-profit organization. COVID hit, we had school board elections, we had a lot of things going on that we wanted to wait before we publicly launched.”

That public announcement came at the March 8 meeting of the GPPSS Board of Education, garnering positive feedback from the community and membership support, Politano said.

“We’re still in a building awareness phase,” Nixon pointed out. “There are a lot of people who don’t know who we are. We want to make sure people understand that we are separate from the school. We’re independent. But we’re also different from the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education.”

For example, in addition to creating a single alumni association encompassing all the GPPSS schools, the non-profit’s sole fundraising initiative is to build an endowment to preserve the school system’s viability for the future. This will reduce reliance on the local tax base and state financial support — funding that has become increasingly strained during the challenges of declining enrollment, school closures, budget deficits and a global pandemic.

But it won’t happen overnight. Board members say the non-profit is in it for the long haul, looking one year, 10 years and 20 years down the road to grow the Generations Endowment to the point it can make a significant difference, with annual distributions funding GPPSS in perpetuity.

“Once a year, typically in the spring, we will announce what the endowment contribution will be for the year so the administration can budget it,” Politano said “Once they budget it, they will let us know how the distribution will be spent so we can inform our donors.”

“When we talk about an endowment, we have a big goal,” Nixon added. “We think our community is very generous. We think that goal is reachable.”

On the alumni side, the association’s motto to unite alumni near and far is “Look back, come back and give back.”

Membership, however, is not restricted to alumni of the Grosse Pointe public schools.

“All community members, businesses, friends, grandparents — anyone who is passionate about supporting the schools” — are welcome to join, Politano said, with an annual $20 individual or $100 ambassador membership.

A $1,000 lifetime membership comes with a little GPAFA swag to show off the member’s commitment to supporting the organization.

Currently, Grosse Pointe Alumni and Friends is growing its membership to cover operating expenses so nearly 100 percent of donations can be invested into the Generations Endowment, with a small portion paying for investment fees.

Board members seek to make the organization accessible to everyone, of all generations, from students to seasoned professionals and retirees, with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

On the website, GPPSS graduates can connect with fellow alumni by clicking on a link to find their class’s Facebook page — or create one if it doesn’t exist yet.

Board members say they are even looking to become a hub for class reunions and urge reunion leaders to contact them for future planning.

Finally, the website includes a volunteer section and an opportunity to nominate someone for a spotlight.

“Right now, we’re in the engagement phase,” Politano said. “We’re getting to know our alumni. We’re highlighting them actively on social media. We’re looking forward to telling those stories. We want to find our oldest alumni. We want to find out the family with the most alumni. All these fun stories that tell the story of 100 years of Grosse Pointe public schools. We’re looking forward to the next 100 years and what that’s going to look like. We’re in this really fun point in time where we have so much to talk about, so much to celebrate, so many stories to tell.”

The hope, Politano added, is that “all that engagement of alumni and community members and friends will translate into significant fundraising for the endowment for the next 100 years.”

For more information, go to gpalumniandfriends.org or email info@gpalumniandfriends.org.

Paying it forward

North culinary arts teacher Michael VIviani hands a gift card to a member of Beaumont Hospital’s medical staff at the end of her shift. Photo courtesy of Brian Stackpoole

Brad Lukas, chief nursing officer at Beaumont Hospital, Grosse Pointe, wrote the following note to convey his gratitude to Principal Kate Murray and her entire team at Grosse Pointe North:

“We have been fighting COVID-19 for the past 14 months, and our staff is getting tired. The boost of morale that the Grosse Pointe North team provided was simply incredible. To know our community has our backs has given us our second wind. I consider all our educators heroes and can’t wait to repay the favor and generosity when things calm down at the hospital. When I look back many years from now on this pandemic, I will never forget the acts of kindness like this and how our community rallied around us as we fought this devastating virus. Our community is second to none!”

This display of gratitude was in response to a random act of kindness North staff members paid forward to hospital workers during Teacher Appreciation Week.

TV Production teacher Brian Stackpoole came up with the idea because he said he kept hearing, especially when cases of COVID-19 were high in April, that morale was low at many area hospitals. Medical professionals were fighting the virus for so long, it was beginning to take a toll.

“A year ago, they had been receiving so much support, but that support had waned,” Stackpoole said. “Teacher Appreciation Week is great and we get so much support, so I really wanted to do something for someone else that week.”

The toll of COVID-19 is something school staff can relate to as well.

“You can help yourself by helping others,” Stackpoole said. “I really felt like sticking to that mantra was something that would help me feel better and keep me going.”

Stackpoole collected donations, raising over $500. On Wednesday, May 5, a group of North staff members handed out Starbuck’s and Dairy Queen gift cards to Beaumont workers between shift changes. They also donated four $50 gift cards to The Charlevoix, a restaurant in Grosse Pointe Park, to be raffled.

In addition to providing pick-me-ups in the form of gift cards, students in Sue Speirs’ applied medical science class wrote thank you notes. Students in Lisa Lucas’s adjusted learning program also made cards, Stackpoole said.

Stackpoole added he could see this becoming an annual event “depending on the circumstances and who really needs help.”

Not only was the event fun for North staff to participate in, but the staff at Beaumont was very appreciative of the gesture.

“As we were walking out and leaving, one of the nurses yelled out of her car how good it made her feel to be recognized,” Stackpoole said, adding, “When you think of someone else, you realize how much power you have right here in school. People are willing to help out in so many different ways.”

Safe Routes to School Family Ride Saturday at 5 p.m.

As part of our continuing efforts to promote Safe Routes for students to walk or bike to school, GPPSS has teamed up with Pointe Pedalers for two family rides:

  • This Saturday, May 15, starting and ending on Kercheval between Defer and Pierce

  • Saturday, May 22, starting and ending in the Parcells back parking lot off Sunningdale

All families are welcome to attend both or either. Each begins at 5 p.m. with a safety training on the basics of safe biking. Then we're off on a family-friendly route at 5:30 p.m.

School Pointes is a publication of the Grosse Pointe Public School System. To submit story ideas or Pointes of Pride, email info@gpschools.org.