Her Last Battle: Advocate for Black Students Back in the Fray to Save WA Charters
The Seventy Four provides coverage on the recent decision made by the Washington Supreme Court. You can read our comprehensive coverage of the matter.
Updated March 9
(Tacoma, Washington) – Thelma Jackson initially agreed to serve on the board of SOAR Academy in Tacoma, Washington, on a temporary basis. As one of the first eight public charter schools to open in Washington state last fall, the school needed someone experienced to assist in getting things started.
Jackson was a perfect fit. With her 20-year tenure on the elected board in a neighboring district and her involvement in various initiatives addressing the state’s racial disparities since the 1970s, she had the necessary qualifications. Over the past two decades, Jackson has been involved in four separate campaigns to establish charter schools in Washington.
However, just days into SOAR Academy’s first school year, the state Supreme Court ruled the funding mechanism for these new schools as unconstitutional. Despite this setback, as the reluctant board chair, Jackson rolled up her sleeves and began advocating for the survival of the school, which will eventually cater to students in grades K-8.
Approximately 15 percent of SOAR Academy’s inaugural classes consist of white students, 22 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent are African American, and 40 percent identify as two or more races. While integration is a goal, Jackson is excited about the school’s potential to demonstrate that high-quality instructional models can bridge even the most severe learning gaps.
"I unapologetically support black kids," she asserts. "They serve as a warning sign. They are the indicator. If we can fix the system for black kids, we can fix it for all kids."
One Monday afternoon, Jackson found herself seated at a conference table in the office of SOAR Academy’s founder and leader, Kristina Bellamy-McClain, who was on maternity leave. In front of Jackson lay a thick envelope containing paperwork that would establish the school as an alternative learning center under the distant Mary Walker school district, a declining system that welcomed this enrollment. This temporary solution would allow the charter school to maintain its funding for the current school year while supporters seek a permanent resolution.
Outside, the sun made a rare appearance during mid-winter, attempting to break through the clouds. In the cafeteria down the hall, students lined up at ballet barres crafted from PVC pipes, attempting to perform a plié in synchronization. The school’s extended schedule includes an hour of dance each day, both to emphasize the arts and to alleviate the financial burden of after-school and enrichment programs on families with limited resources.
Across the table, Bellamy’s interim replacement compiled a list of data that Jackson would need to present as testimony before the state legislature, which had commenced earlier that morning. Assessing the growth of SOAR’s 80 kindergarten and first-grade students in the first four months of the school year required some creative methods of quantification.
The future of charter schools remains a highly debated and unresolved topic within the Washington legislature. A bill intended to address the funding issue identified by the Supreme Court has stalled in the House Education Committee. Opposition to reforms that would benefit students of color, led by the teachers union, is notably intense here. At the time of writing, lawmakers have only a few days left to act.
Approximately 70 percent of students in the eight charter schools whose fate hangs in the balance are children of color, with two-thirds living in poverty. If these schools were to close, many students would return to schools labeled as failing by the state.
Meanwhile, affluent parents either choose to reside in neighborhoods with highly regarded schools or opt-out of the public system altogether. Nearly 30 percent of Seattle students attend private schools, which is two-and-a-half times the national average.
Similar to other predominantly white and politically progressive communities, Washington’s seemingly prosperous facade conceals some of the most significant black-white achievement gaps in the country.
In each grade level that has been assessed, African American students score 10 to 30 percent lower in math and reading proficiency compared to their white counterparts. Less than one-third of black fourth and seventh-graders perform at grade level in math. It is important to note that poverty is not the sole cause of this issue, as low-income white students outperform economically stable African American students.
Black students, who comprise less than 6 percent of the student population in Washington state, are nearly three times more likely to face suspensions or expulsions compared to white students. Moreover, as less than 2 percent of the state’s teachers are black, the adults making disciplinary judgments come from a distinct cultural background.
SOAR Academy is situated within a former parochial school in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Approximately one-third of the residents in this area are African American, and two-thirds live in poverty. The traditional public schools in the vicinity are among Washington’s lowest-performing.
Every child was required to visit the school for screening before it officially opened. Based on the screening results, each child received a personalized learning plan on their first day of school.
In 2012, Washington voters gave their approval to a ballot initiative that established charter schools. The plan was to open eight schools per year for five years, with a strong emphasis on innovation. In the first year, twenty-two groups submitted proposals.
Anticipating that only the strongest proposals would advance to the next round, Bellamy-McClain sought feedback from Jackson, a renowned consultant specializing in advocating for the education of black children, on SOAR’s proposal.
Jackson appreciated that the program was developed locally and demonstrated a deep understanding of Hilltop’s educational landscape. However, what resonated with her the most was the founders’ commitment to fostering a culture of high expectations.
Jackson, who graduated from a segregated high school in Mobile, Alabama in 1963, remembered that despite the challenges, the teachers believed in and supported every student. They made the most of their limited resources and embraced each student’s cultural identity. Jackson felt confident in her abilities and was proud of her intelligence, even in a world that discriminated against her based on her skin color.
Following graduation, Jackson attended the historically black Southern University in Baton Rouge, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. During the height of affirmative action in 1968, she was recruited to work at an atomic lab on the West Coast. When her oldest child started kindergarten, she joined the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). She was shocked by the inequities she witnessed in the schools, despite black individuals making up less than 4 percent of the state’s population.
Frustrated by the explanations that attributed these disparities to poverty, Jackson became determined to find a better solution.
Eventually, Jackson was elected to the school board in North Thurston, a medium-sized district near Olympia with a diverse population. As she gained more knowledge, her frustration grew.
School board members were discouraged from asking questions as it was considered micromanagement, but Jackson, armed with access to extensive data, refused to remain silent. She challenged the system and demanded answers.
This drove her to establish Foresight Consulting with her husband Nat, providing support to schools and districts aiming for better outcomes. In 2001, Jackson earned her doctorate in education leadership and change from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Her activism earned her positions 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 the Washington Alliance of Black School Educators. Additionally, she played a key role in the creation of the advocacy group Black Education Strategy Roundtable.
Elder Toney Montgomery, a Tacoma pastor who has followed Jackson’s work for two decades, praises her as a symbol of educational excellence. Her reputation in the education community is a result of her dedication and investment in the cause.
Whenever Jackson advocated for laws or initiatives specifically targeting the education of black children, she faced resistance. Opponents argued that reforms should address the needs of all children of color.
However, Jackson stood firm. While she believed in providing a quality education for all children, she recognized the unique challenges and inequities that African Americans have endured.
She acknowledged the historical context, stating that unlike other groups, African Americans were forcibly brought to America as slaves and denied their personhood. She shared that she herself is only three generations removed from slavery and experienced firsthand the struggles faced by her community.
After much debate, the Washington legislature finally established an advisory committee in 2008 to address the achievement gap specifically for African American children. The committee’s plan focused on ensuring equitable distribution of the best teachers and ongoing reporting of data disaggregated by race.
While this was considered a victory, Jackson observed more transformative changes happening in other communities. She particularly admired Howard Fuller’s efforts to provide black parents in Milwaukee with more choices in education.
Jackson expresses her belief that proving the capabilities of students through charter schools will result in a positive impact on all schools, as it will break the monopoly.
In the past, Washington voters rejected charter school initiatives in 1996 and 2000. However, in 2004, a charter schools bill was passed and signed into law, only to be defeated in a ballot referendum. Other charter bills also failed to make it through the legislature. When a ballot initiative for creating the first charter schools finally passed in 2012, there was skepticism from the black leaders in the state. They feared that charters would lead to white flight, similar to the segregation academies of the past.
Jackson took a group of African American leaders to visit successful charter schools in Oakland, California, using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This visit changed their perspectives, as they came back in favor of charter schools, impressed by the programs that prioritized family engagement and built strong relationships between teachers and parents.
One of the individuals who went on the trip, Montgomery, noted that Jackson deserves credit for keeping the charter school programs open. Despite a court ruling that deemed charter schools illegal, Jackson mobilized and ensured their continuation.
SOAR’s students are not yet eligible to take assessments, but Jackson has observed their progress through small math or reading groups. This progress supports her belief that they can achieve even more in the future.
Three of the eight new charter schools are located in Tacoma, where traditional schools have seen improvements in the past three years. Jackson credits a state innovation grant and public discussion about important data for these positive changes. Additionally, new schools are showing that challenged students are capable of accelerated learning. For example, students at Summit Sierra High School in Seattle are on track to achieve three years’ worth of growth in one academic year.
All of this evidence makes it harder to defend the status quo. Jackson believes that people can make a difference and advocates and communities can create positive change. Ultimately, she emphasizes that children belong to all of us and improving their education is a collective responsibility.