School diversity blossoms

The faces in Lacey's schools were mainly white when Thelma Jackson became the first black person on the North Thurston School Board 30 years ago.

Today, Lacey's diversity is reflected in its schools. Last year, 37 percent of the 13,000 students in the district were nonwhite. That's up from 20 percent in 1990.

During her 20 years on the board, Jackson, now 60, raised questions the white men on the board hadn't considered in an effort to change double standards, improve education for students of all ethnicities and improve the district's "ghetto" reputation, she said.

"She led the charge to really recognize diversity and to deal with it effectively," said David Steele, who began in the district in 1967 as a teacher at North Thurston High School and ended his 30-year tenure as superintendent.

When he began, the district was mainly rural, there was little diversity and people were unaware of inequalities in the district.

"People had never been exposed to diversity in the community. ... As Fort Lewis developed, we were really enriched by the diversity because of the military," he said. "When I left we were approaching over 40 percent diversity in the district. I'm very proud of that."

Thelma and Nat Jackson came to the Northwest from the South. Thelma Jackson was fresh out of college with a biochemistry degree when she took a job at Hanford in 1968. She was recruited as part of a federally mandated affirmative action program. Four years and two daughters later, the couple moved to Lacey with Nat Jackson's state job.

At that time, there were 12 black families in all of Thurston County. They all knew each other, and they'd get together for cookouts and gatherings, Thelma Jackson said.

Jackson began volunteering for Lydia Hawk's PTA when her daughter started kindergarten. Two years later, a position opened up after the board's only female member left. Board members wanted to recruit another woman, and they were already familiar with Jackson. On the board, she freely asked questions and earned an outspoken reputation.

"I'd hear things like, 'She's trying to micromanage.' No, no, I'm just asking a question," she said. "Part of it was being a female. ? Part of it was being African-American."

Questioning policies

Jackson observed a double standard in discipline policies. A black student would be expelled for starting a fights with a white student, and the white students would go back to class without any repercussions, Jackson said. Students weren't punished for derogatory racial comments.

The board began to analyze discipline records and found a serious unbalance, particularly in the black community, Steele said.

"People denied for many years that there was any unequal or unfairness. ... We had to train people to understand the differences, and Thelma was a strong leader making sure that happened," he said.

Jackson also challenged the widely held belief that disparities in income explained why minority children's performance levels were below average and why fewer children of color were enrolled in gifted programs. "I would get free and reduced lunch data and statistics. 'What does that have to do with it?' " she said. "Since when did your intelligence and your ability to learn be dictated by your family's income?"

Rather, those disparities were due to "the system having low expectations of these kids, having racial stereotypes of who could learn and not learn," she said.

The disparities continue today, she said.

Last year's WASL scores in math among black and Hispanic students and those from low-

income families lagged far behind their peers, though the gap is closing.

"The district has come a long way in recognizing that race and culture are factors in the equation. ... They made tremendous progress in that sense, but still with a lot further to go," Jackson said.

River Ridge success

Jackson also challenged the board's rationale for choosing boundaries for River Ridge High School, built in 1994. Board members wanted to redo district boundaries to ensure an equal distribution of minorities in each of the three high schools.

This would have required busing students on the freeway and forcing them to travel farther to school, which the district had previously tried to avoid.

"My question was, 'W hy?' " Jackson said.

In the end, students went to the school closest to them, and River Ridge became the most diverse high school in the county. In 2004, 43 percent of the student body was nonwhite.

At the same time, the school has not had a racially or ethnically motived incident that resulted in discipline in at least four years, The Olympian reported in May.

Acceptance of different backgrounds is one of the lasting effects of Jackson's tenure. River Ridge launched the "school within a school" system and required senior projects - concepts the other high schools in the district and county adopted.

Another plus: Students at River Ridge learn how to interact with people who don't look like them, a good preparation for life, Jackson said. "That's the real world," she said.

A proud Lacey resident

While on the board, Jackson began to research education issues such as performance and race. Her research eventually turned into a doctorate in educational leadership and change in 2002 and a private consulting business, Foresight Consultants. For the past 10 years she has traveled throughout the state, leading diversity trainings and speaking on topics such as bias and fairness in curriculum, multicultural education and parental involvement.

Jackson and her husband raised three children and have been active in the community in other ways. They helped form New Life Baptist Church, which began with a few families meeting in the YWCA's Friendly Hall and now is on Pacific Avenue.

"When I go to New Life now, I probably don't know a third of the people there anymore, where I used to know everybody," she said.

The district's evolution is just one reflection of Lacey's diversity, Jackson said. And the community's diversity is one reason she's proud to live in Lacey.

"As you move around in the grocery store, you see a number of other blacks, where it used to be you were the only one, and that's only one ethnicity," she said. "The ethnic population of Thurston County has grown tremendously."

Diversity in North Thurston Public Schools


White: 63 percent

Asian: 13

Hispanic: 9

Black: 9

American Indian: 4

Other: 2


White: 70 percent

Asian: 12

Hispanic: 7

Black: 9

American Indian: 2


White: 80 percent

Asian: 9

Hispanic: 4

Black: 5

American Indian: 2