By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
When Tappan Middle School Principal Roberta Heyward learned she’d been named AAPS’ Executive Director, K-8 and Middle-Level Education, she was both elated and confident that she will love her new job as much as every other one she’s held with the district.
She was also impressed. After all, she began her career at AAPS as a teacher in 2003.
“To transition from a teacher to principal and now executive director is quite impressive,” she says. “I love what I do and I’m eager to work with all middle level and K-8 communities.”
Heyward began her career at AAPS in 2003 as a kindergarten teacher at Bryant, and was principal there from 2011 to 2017, when she became principal of Tappan Middle School.
Prior to coming to AAPS, the Detroit native had taught fourth and fifth grade at a Detroit Catholic school, and middle school at a Detroit charter school.
And while working with this age group can be challenging at times, she says it’s extremely rewarding. In fact, Heyward believes middle schoolers and kindergarteners have a couple of things in common: They want to feel a sense of belonging and they want to know that you genuinely care for them.
When they know that, they’re going to rise to the occasion, she says.
It was at a job fair at EMU in the spring of 2003 that she saw the long line for AAPS, and decided to keep walking. But on her way out, the line had shortened. So she stopped by and had an on-the-spot interview with Luther Corbitt, Bryant’s principal at the time.
On the Thursday before school started on Tuesday, she was offered a job as a Bryant kindergarten teacher.
In four days, she was ready to go and has never looked back.
“At that point, Ann Arbor Public Schools had adopted me,” she says, sitting in her sunny office at Tappan. “It’s been a partnership ever since, and I have enjoyed every step of the way.”
When announcing Heyward’s new role, Superintendent Jeanice Swift noted that Heyward is a highly regarded teacher, instructional and transformational leader.
“Dr. Heyward brings a proven record of excellence, depth of experience, and established relationships in PreK-8 education,” noted Swift, “that will serve our more than 5,500 K8 and middle-level students, staff, and families well.”
Swift highlighted several of Heyward’s accomplishments through the years, including:
- Overseeing Tappan’s national designation as a 2021 National School to Watch by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. Schools to Watch are a distinctive group of middle schools across the country that have demonstrated a proven record of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity and organizational structure
- Establishing and nurturing community outreach and partnerships to serve the Bryant/Pattengill/Tappan students and families
- Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for families and honoring and celebrating the diversity within these school communities
- Serving on numerous district-level committees, including as a long-serving member of the AAPS Equity Team
- Providing professional development and establishing best practices at workshops across the district
Heyward believes her love for kids was a big part of the reason she got the job.
“I just love what I do,” she says. “I love education, I love helping others, I love mentoring educators, I love teaching students at all levels. I enjoy going above and beyond for students.”
“Give that decision one more check”
Tappan Assistant Principal Christopher Roberts says Heyward is a passionate, dedicated educator with a relentless will to advocate and support students, as well as a great sense of humor.
“Her desire to be the best administrator/educator comes through in her push and lift of staff. What I mean by that is she will push you to do your best and achieve more, while supporting and lifting you along the way.
He said one of the things he’s learned from her is to always be willing to give his decision one more thorough check.
“I remember many times her asking me, “Have you taken the time to reflect as a leader on things you may have not considered?” he says. “This question was always been like a check and balance for me, since many times in our roles we are rushed and don’t take that little bit of extra time to fully view the entire picture.”
Roberts recalls the student who was concluding his freshman year of high school who took the time to email Heyward and thank her for supporting him. He noted that he had some struggles in his first year at high school and wished he had listened to her talks of how the transition can be a challenge, but you must stay focused.
“He shared with her that he now understood what she meant, and he was going to take that advice as he moved through the remainder of his high school career,” says Roberts.
Clague Middle School Assistant Principal Jen Daddow said Heyward is collaborative and insightful, and she is pleased she will be leading the AAPS Middle-Level & K-8 group.
“For as long as I have worked with Roberta, she has been a strong advocate for all things middle level,” says Daddow. “Because she’s been a middle school principal herself, Roberta definitely has her finger on the pulse of what we need for our buildings, our staff, our families, our communities at large, and most importantly, our students.”
Extensive education began with Detroit Public Schools
In 2020, Heyward completed her Doctorate of Education Leadership from the University of Michigan, Flint. Her dissertation research, “A Qualitative Case Study: Homeless Parents’ Perceptions of School-Related Supplemental Services (McKinney-Vento) For Their School-Aged Children” shares key insights in understanding parent-school experiences among homeless families.
(Heyward says she doesn’t care if people call her “Doctor Heyward” or “Roberta.” She’s just glad all that hard work and long hours are behind her.)
Heyward also holds a bachelor’s degree in Language Arts-Communications from the University of Detroit Mercy and a master’s in The Art of Teaching from Marygrove College, and an Education Specialist degree from Oakland University. She is a 1992 graduate of Frank Cody High School in Detroit.
Moving from Bryant to Tappan made sense because she wanted to make an impact on more students, many Bryant/Pattengil students had gone on to Tappan. And she loves middle school.
“Being the executive director affords me the opportunity to make a greater impact on all the middle schools and K buildings,” she says.
The role had been vacant for the past year after Jazz Parks became Assistant Superintendent, School Leadership.
Tappan ELA teacher Rebecca Lee says she will miss Heyward popping into her classroom.
“As a former Ela teacher, she could walk in and just jump into whatever we were doing,” says Lee. “Whether it was joining a small group or participating in a whole-class discussion, Dr. Heyward seamlessly entered our classroom to become a full participant. I will miss seeing her interact with students the most. Seeing them come alive to receive a high five or a hug for their little and big accomplishments. She had a way of making every student know how important they are at Tappan.”
Lee says Heyward’s advice over the years has been priceless.
“Whether it is for differentiating instruction, organizing a lesson, or supporting making connections with students, she was a great asset to tap into and I know will be an even stronger asset to her new role,” she says.
Tappan social studies teacher Scott Thobe says Heyward always has the best interests of kids in mind.
“She was the elementary principal for both of my own kids,” he says, referring to her years at Bryant, “and then was their principal at Tappan during middle school. I was always impressed with her ability to form relationships with all kids, and that certainly carried over to Tappan.”
Savoring her role as a grandmother
Heyward and her husband, Michael, a police officer, have three grown children of their own. And these days, they love to dote on their two grandchildren—which has become their favorite pastime.
“My kids are grown, so while we talk often, they don’t come around as much unless it’s a special occasion—or I’m cooking or they’re dropping off the grandkids!” she says with a laugh. “We spend all our extra time with our grandkids. So that’s our joy.”
The Heywards—along with two Yorkshire terriers— are longtime residents of Plymouth, a location they love but for the slow-moving trains that too often block traffic.
Tappan community: “Amazing”
Until her replacement at Tappan is announced, Heyward still has an office there. And though her official office will be at the Balas Administration Building, she expects to spend most of her time at the middle-level schools.
“Tappan has an amazing group of educators,” she says. “It’s a family here, so I will miss working with these awesome teachers and administrators on a day-to-day basis in the community. We have an amazing parent community here. I will miss the entire Tappan community. As previously mentioned, now I just have more communities to connect with across the middle and K/8 schools. While I won’t be situated here at Tappan on a daily basis, it’s still part of my home.”
Heyward wants to see each middle school join Slauson, Clague, and Tappan as Schools to Watch, and says she is excited to work on equity issues at the middle level as part of a district-wide emphasis on making sure academic excellence is accessible to every child every day.
“I love this community,” she says. “I love what I do, and I’m looking forward to greater things as we work to ensure the success of all students.”