The Seventy Four reports on the Washington Supreme Court decision: Read our complete coverage
Updated March 9
(Tacoma, Washington) — When Thelma Jackson agreed to serve on the board of SOAR Academy in Tacoma, Washington, it was supposed to be a short-term commitment. One of the first eight public charter schools to open in Washington state last fall, the tiny program just needed someone with experience to help get things going.
Jackson fit the bill. In addition to serving on the elected board in a nearby district for 20 years, she has consulted on nearly every effort to address the state’s racial inequities since the 1970s. Over the last two decades Jackson worked on four separate campaigns to open charter schools in Washington.
But just days into SOAR’s first school year, the state Supreme Court declared the mechanism for funding the new schools unconstitutional. The reluctant board chair rolled up her sleeves and started campaigning for the survival of the school, which will eventually serve grades K-8.
Roughly 15 percent of SOAR’s inaugural classes of kindergarteners and first-graders are white, 22 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent are African American and 40 percent identify as two or more races. And while intergration is a goal, Jackson is excited about the school’s potential to prove that high quality instructional models can close even the worst learning gaps.
“I’m unapologetically for black kids,” she says. “They are the canary in the coal mine. They are your indicator. If you can fix the system for black kids, you can fix it for all kids.”
A recent Monday afternoon found Jackson seated at a conference table in the office of SOAR’s founder and leader, Kristina Bellamy-McClain, who was out on maternity leave. In front of her was a fat envelope containing paperwork making the school an alternative learning center under the auspices of the distant Mary Walker school district, a shrinking system that welcomes the enrollment. It’s a short-term fix that will allow the charters to keep their funding for the current school year while supporters seek a permanent solution.
Outside the sun was trying to make a rare mid-winter appearance. Down the hall in the cafeteria, students were lined up at ballet barres made from PVC pipe, trying to plié in unison. The school’s extended schedule includes an hour of dance a day both to give it an arts focus and to relieve families with limited resources from the costs of afterschool and enrichment programs.
Across the table, Bellamy’s temporary replacement was making a list of data Jackson needed in order to testify before the state legislature, which convened that morning. Because SOAR’s 80 pupils are in kindergarten and first grade, quantifying their growth during the first four months of the school year requires some creativity.
The future of charter schools is a topic of fierce — and still unresolved — debate in the Washington legislature, where a bill to remedy the funding wrinkle cited by the Supreme Court has stalled in the House Education Committee.
Spearheaded by the teachers union, opposition to a number of reforms that would benefit students of color is unusually intense here and as of press time, with days remaining for lawmakers to act.
Some 70 percent of students in the eight charter schools whose fate swings in the balance are children of color. Two-thirds live in poverty. If their new schools close, many will go back to schools classified by the state as failing.
Wealthy parents, meanwhile, either buy into a neighborhood with sought-after schools or leave the system altogether. Almost 30 percent of Seattle students attend private schools, two-and-a-half times the national average.
As in a number of other largely white, otherwise politically progressive communities, Washington’s veneer of prosperity masks some of the largest black-white achievement gaps in the country.
In every tested grade, 10 to 30 percent fewer African American students than whites score proficient
in math and reading. Less than one-third of black fourth- and seventh-graders perform math at grade level. And the core issue isn’t poverty: low-income whites outperform prosperous African American students.
Black students, who make up less than 6 percent of the student body in Washington state, are nearly three times
more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. And because less than 2 percent of the state’s teachers are black, the adult judging the behavior that ends in punitive discipline does so from across a cultural chasm.
SOAR is located in a former parochial school in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, where a third of residents are African American and two-thirds are impoverished. The nearby traditional public schools are among Washington’s lowest performing.
The school’s plan for getting better results combines personalized learning plans with instructional techniques borrowed from schools in other states where black children are succeeding at rates unheard of in traditional programs.
Each child visited the school before it opened for screening. Based on the results, each had a personalized learning plan waiting on the first day of school.
In 2012, Washington voters approved the ballot initiative creating charter schools. The plan was to open eight schools a year for five years, with an emphasis on innovation. Twenty-two groups submitted proposals the first year.
Knowing only the strongest applications would make it through the first round, Bellamy-McClain asked Jackson, a leading consultant on making education work for black children, for feedback on SOAR’s proposal.
Jackson liked that the program was homegrown and that it reflected a deep understanding of Hilltop’s educational landscape. But more than anything, she liked the idea that the founders were intent on creating a culture of high expectations.
The high school Jackson graduated from in 1963 in Mobile, Alabama, was segregated but full of adults who believed every student could achieve.
“We were all poor and we didn’t know it,” she says. “These wonderful teachers with so few resources got so much out of us. They loved us, they believed in us, they disciplined us, they knew our families.”
And they affirmed their students’ culture. “In the segregated world I lived in with its Jim Crow rules, I knew I was a heck of a lot smarter than many of the people who were indifferent to me because of the color of my skin,” says Jackson. “My sense of self was strong and I was sure of my capabilities.”
After graduation, Jackson enrolled in the historically black Southern University in Baton Rouge, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. It was the heyday of affirmative action and federal contractors were desperate for talent.
In June of 1968, a campus recruiter hired Jackson to work at an atomic lab on the West Coast. When Jackson’s oldest child started kindergarten, she joined the PTA. Blacks make up less than 4 percent of the state’s population, but she was still shocked at the inequities in the schools.
“I had to sit in these meetings and listen to people explain the discrepancies, the disparities as the result of poverty,” she recalls. “I was convinced there was a better way.”
Before long Jackson got herself elected to the school board in North Thurston, a medium-sized district near Olympia with a diverse population. The more she learned, the madder she got.
“School board members are taught not to ask questions, that that was micromanagement,” says Jackson. “I had access to much more data than your average person would have. So I learned to ask questions, to make people uncomfortable.
“It used to just burn me up,” she adds. “There was all of this data about the students and none about the system. It hooked me in.”
Together with her husband Nat she opened Foresight Consulting, a concern that provides support to schools and districts seeking better outcomes. In 2001, Jackson earned a doctorate in education leadership and change from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Her activism won her seats on task forces and advisory councils reporting to five different governors, including the state Commission of African American Affairs. She served as president of the Pacific Region of the National School Boards Association and of the Washington Alliance of Black School Educators. And she helped to create the advocacy group Black Education Strategy Roundtable.
“Just her name evokes the pursuit of excellence in education,” says Elder Toney Montgomery, a Tacoma pastor who has followed Jackson’s work for 20 years. “Her gravitas in the education community is because of her willingness to invest in something.”
Time and again when Jackson advocated for a law or initiative aimed at black children there was pushback. The refrain every time: Reforms needed to target all children of color.
Jackson was resolute. All children deserve a quality education, but African Americans have endured inequities not shared by other groups.
“They didn’t come here in the belly of a slave ship,” she says. “No other group had been stripped of their personhood. I am but three generations removed from slavery. Me…. By law we were not considered a whole person.”
After considerable debate on this point, in 2008 the Washington legislature created an advisory committee to specifically address the achievement gap for African American children. The plan crafted by the committee
called for the equitable distribution of the best teachers and for continued reporting of data disaggregated by race.
It was a win, to be sure. But Jackson was tracking education reform discussions in other communities and seeing bolder change. In particular, she was intrigued by Howard Fuller’s laser-focus on creating choices for black parents in Milwaukee.
Not only were some of that city’s charter schools outperforming their district brethren with black children, they were exerting pressure on the entire system to do better.
“I thought, ‘If we could prove with these charter schools that these kids are capable of learning, I have no doubt we will have people knocking down that door,’” says Jackson. “It will result in all schools doing better because the monopoly will get broken up.”
Washington voters rejected charter school initiatives in 1996 and 2000. In 2004, a charter schools bill passed the legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. Gary Locke but the statewide teachers uion filed for a ballot referendum and voters defeated the measure at the polls. Various other charter bills never made it out of the legislature. When a ballot initiative creating the first schools finally passed in 2012, the state’s black leaders were still skeptical.
Their fear: That charters would serve as a vehicle for further white flight, much in the way that the “segregation academies” of the 1960s and ’70s allowed whites to end-run court-ordered integration.
“People of my generation in the South, we saw how white folks set up military academies, all kinds of programs to take their kids out of traditional public schools so they would not go to school with black kids,” says Jackson. “So black people thought that’s what charters were, a way for white people to leave the public schools.”
Using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in October 2014 Jackson took a delegation of 15 African American leaders to Oakland, California, to visit successful charter schools.
“They came back converts,” she says. “They came back saying, ‘If this is what we could have, then we are in favor of charter schools.’”
Montgomery was one of the people who went on the trip. In contrast to many schools he was familiar with, the programs the group visited prioritized family engagement in a way that built strong relationships between teachers and parents. He came back convinced that competition would be good for Washington’s children of color.
Jackson deserves credit for the fact that the programs are still open, he adds.
“When the court in September ruled that charter schools were not legal, she mobilized,” he says. “She could easily have folded up her tent and said, ‘OK.’
SOAR’s students aren’t old enough to take the assessments that have yielded the positive achievement data Washington’s other endangered charter schools have used to press their case that lawmakers ought to allow the programs to remain open. Instead, Jackson has relied on information about how many have progressed from one small math or reading group to another.
“If we got this far in five months, what could we do in five years?” she asks. “I don’t know whether we will have the wherewithal to exist next year, but a certain part of our case will be proven.”
Three of the eight new charters are located in Tacoma, where the last three years have seen improvements in the traditional schools. A state innovation grant has helped, Jackson says, but so has the public discussion about the little-mined data that irked her so much as a school board member.
Moreover, several of the new schools are on track to prove that given the right instruction, even the most challenged students are capable of accelerated learning. Students at Summit Sierra High School in Seattle are on track to achieve three years’ growth in one academic year, for example.
All of which makes the status quo much harder to defend than it was even a few short months ago.
“It proves that just because the situation is this way it doesn’t need to remain that way,” says Jackson. “People can make a difference. Advocates and communities can make a difference. And children belong to all of us.”