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From lunch lady to assistant principal: Foundation helps people of color succeed in education

Justine Locke is moving from the school cafeteria to the principal's office.

EDMONDS, Wash — The school year is winding down at Chase Community School in Edmonds.

It's the last one for Justine Locke as a teacher, as her unique path through education continues.

For the past three years, she has lived the dream she had as a little girl.

"When I was little, I had my stuffed animals in a circle," she said. "We had snack. We had class."

Making that dream come true wasn't easy, though, with so few teachers that looked like the bi-racial youngster acting as role models.

"It was learning to navigate a world where you're constantly the 'other.' Every room I was in I was often the only Black kid, the only Black girl," Locke said.

She started her career in education in a school cafeteria, as a humble lunch lady.

Locke worked four years, using the opportunity to get a foot in the door at the school district, and she relished the chance to be with the students.

"I got to see all the kids every single day and I took that one moment to connect with them," Justine said.

From those modest beginnings, Justine, a single mom of two, not only became a teacher, but earlier this month she earned a master's degree in education from the University of Washington.

She was selected by her peers to give the commencement address. 

"When I share (my) story with people, I often hear, 'you started from the bottom.' If you consider being a lunch lady 'the bottom,' then I invite you to re-imagine what education looks like to you because education takes all of us."

Justine owes much of her success to the Teachers of Color Foundation in the Edmonds School District.

It gives scholarships and support to people of color who want to become teachers.

In Edmonds more than 50% of the students are not white, while about 90% of the teachers are.

"The numbers don't lie. They really show you what the inequities are," said foundation president Diana White. "When you look at the data our students of color aren't graduating at the same rate. They're facing higher discipline rates than their counterparts. If we don't address the disparities that are happening, public schools won't be successful."

For Justine, this is the last year in a classroom for her because the former lunch lady is moving to the principal's office.

Next fall she will be the new assistant principal at Lynnwood High School. 

It's a bittersweet time.

As she says goodbye to her kids, Justine is grateful to each and every one of them for helping that little girl achieve her dream.

"Every single student has been a part of this journey with me. I want to open doors for every student. I want them to know that they are heard, that they're seen, that their voice matters, that their feelings matter. I have dreamed of being a teacher for so long that stepping out of the classroom feels premature, but stepping into leadership feels like destiny." 

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