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GRPS Supt. reflects on MLK's influence to her district

12:27 AM, Aug 29, 2013   |    comments
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Teresa Weatherall Neal talks about being bussed to school in the 70s. Creston High School Graduation pic.

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- Many of the changes Americans have experienced since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech have happened in the classroom.

Fifty years ago, the future superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools would have no idea King's riveting speech would change the course of not just her life, but her career.

"I started at Madison Park Elementary as a kindergartener," says Teresa Weatherall Neal.  

Neal's first year of school began in 1963, the year of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I do recall the struggles as a young child, the riots in Grand Rapids, and the turmoil," she says.  "South High School was closed. I was bussed in the 1970s."

Neal was one of the few black seniors in her Creston High graduating class.  Just a few years later, still in the 1970s, that all changed.

"Times were changing," she says. "They started closing schools, started bussing more students in from the city, and so there were younger students, more color."

She is now a 36-year-veteran of the district and oversees 17,000 students -- 42% of whom are black.

One of the most obvious changes to Neal is textbooks.

"I can remember the first black picture I saw in a book. It was Penny and Pam," she says, referring to a children's book.

Now, the district has built Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Academy.

So, what would Dr. King say, if he visited the district today?

"He would be very pleased and proud that here in Grand Rapids we are creating an environment where people can be who there are and still we have love and respect for each other," she says.

"I hope that he would be pleased that I have taken the challenge, because I didn't seek it out," she added.  

"I think he would be really pleased with this team that we are so focused and this board and community that everyone is so focused on making this happen for children."

The district has children representing 50 different cultures. Neal now has her own dream for her students.

"That's what I want, is to lead, when you're number is called, be ready to stand up."

Neal says the district still has a ways to go. She says there's still children they're fighting to become educated, to become part of the mainstream society.

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