From school ‘lunch lady’ to assistant principal, Justine Locke ready to be a role model

Justine Locke delivering her commencement address. (Photo courtesy Justine Locke)

Justine Locke’s unique career path has seen her advance from Edmonds School District support staff to an administrative leadership position.

“I’ve always wanted to teach, I just, my life took a little detour for a little while,” she said. Locke started her career in education several years ago as a “lunch lady” in the Mukilteo School District, before later getting a job with the Edmonds School District’s events staff which, she noted, “is how I got my foot in the door” locally.

Locke was then hired as a paraeducator working in an administrative support role at Meadowdale High School. “The only instructions that were given was to be visible to kids, which was so easy and so fun,” she said. “And from there, I finished my bachelor’s degree in teaching and became a teacher in elementary and then I have now become an assistant principal, or I’m about to be an assistant principal, at Lynwood High School” starting next fall.

She noted, “I’ve wanted to teach since I was like a little kid,” and “I can remember very clearly as a kid, being the ‘lunch lady’ to my stuffed animals as well as the teacher.” Locke noted that her fifth grade teacher at Beverly Elementary School was particularly instrumental in helping solidify that dream.

“He just said the words, ‘I believe in you,’ to everything that I was doing, everything I was trying to achieve,” Locke said. “And by the time I finished fifth grade, he had instilled in me the fact that I wanted to become a teacher. I knew I wanted to teach, I wanted to do for kids what he had done for me.”

For the past three years Locke has been teaching elementary students at Chase Lake Community School in Edmonds. She noted of her career progression in education, “I am constantly building my dream while I’m living my dream and that’s what I tell my students. When they see me as a 47-year-old graduate from college, my hope is that they see that their lives do not have a time limit” and “that there is no timeline on their dream.”

Locke added that she tells her students, “Life isn’t going to give up on you, but you have the choice to give up on your life. Don’t do that. I want you to keep dreaming.”

While working as a paraeducator, Locke learned about the Edmonds School District’s Teachers of Color Foundation scholarship, which helped her to obtain her bachelor’s degree and become a classrooom teacher. She noted the program was established “as an answer to the community’s call for teachers who represent the demographics that our schools hold.”

The nonprofit Teachers of Color Foundation states that it strives “to bring a culture of diversity to the teaching faculty of the Edmonds School District by recruiting, educating, and retaining teachers to meet the needs of our student population.” In addition to annually awarding full scholarships so that district employees can become teachers, the foundation also provides them with support services and mentoring, race and equity training, access to emergency funds, professional development and student teaching stipends to help with living expenses during the training process.

The foundation website notes that students of color account for 55% of the Edmonds School District’s population while the teaching staff is 89% white, and “closing the opportunity gap among students of color is critical to improving student success and is a benefit for all students.” Other benefits include higher graduation rates, proportional discipline, culturally responsive classrooms, improved family engagement, higher college acceptance rates and diversity in educational leadership.

The foundation was formed in response to feedback regarding equity in education provided by the district’s students and school community members. Its annual scholarship program was created in 2017 to increase the teacher diversity within the school district.

Locke subsequently applied and was chosen as one of the foundation’s first scholarship recipients.

Along with the foundation’s financial award, she said, “came all of the support. It can be a thing being a teacher of color or even an employee of color in a school district, in a public institution, so having somebody who could just support the process on the days when it felt like too much” was particularly valuable, she added.

“Often when people want to support people of color they always come with money,” Locke said. “It’s always an assumption that it’s the money that is needed. And often it’s the support, the connection and the resources that are needed. The money is also very helpful — please understand I’m so thankful that they paid for my scholarship — but I also want to say that it’s the people support is what is so important.”

She added that as a result of the foundation’s resources, “I have connections in our school district that I would not have had if I had not been a part of the scholarship in this journey. So it’s been critical.”

This month, Locke earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Washington and was also chosen to give the graduation ceremony’s commencement speech. She described the experience as “like a culmination of my life coming together.”

Justine Locke on the University of Washington campus.

This fall, she will have a new role — as assistant principal at Lynnwood High School. “I can’t wait for the first day of school; it’s always my favorite, to just welcome the kids back and to be visible to them and let them know that there’s always going to be somebody who cares about them,” Locke said. “I do not by any means think I’m a savior, I don’t think they need a savior. I think Lynwood is so full of love and support and student connection I just want to continue to foster that.”

“One of the most important things to me in education is equity,” she added, “That every single student, every single person, even serving in education can get what they need to be successful and I’m passionate about that — so finding ways to connect.”

Locke said it’s important those connections include a “community that doesn’t have any barriers. Like, the people in our community are welcome in our spaces and we are welcome in theirs because we’re building, we’re serving and supporting kids who are going to become the adults of our community. So the more connections that we can make between them and the communities that they serve, the more successful we’ll all be.”

She said the foundation’s scholarship program is particularly important locally “because it is something the community asked for, they asked for more teachers of color who look like the kids that we serve…. And that’s what this scholarship serves to provide is bringing in more teachers of color.”

Teachers of Color Foundation President Diana White, a former member of the Edmonds School Board, noted the program has awarded 16 scholarships over the past five years. Seven of those scholars have since graduated and become classroom teachers for the school district. “It’s interesting the last cohort that we brought on, it’s all males, because there’s not a lot of males in the teaching profession either,” she added.

In exchange for funding their education, the foundation asks that scholars remain with the Edmonds School District for three years after receiving their teaching certification.

White said one of the main reasons the foundation decided to target its scholarships to staff who are already working for the Edmonds district is “because they’re already living and working in this area, and they have planted roots and families.” She added of the community-based approach, “We didn’t want to provide scholarships and then have someone move out and go somewhere else and work.”

In addition, the district’s existing support staff provided a diverse population to recruit from. White said the last time she checked, “between 30-40%” of paraeducators working for the district identify as a person of color. “They’ve already proven that they like being around kids and like working around kids and that’s a really important part of our program,” she added, and the opportunities it can provide.

“The cool thing about this program, it’s, that we know of, the only program that’s embedded within a school district in the whole country,” she said, adding that the foundation is a “very grassroots and a community-driven type of organization.”

Locke said that while the scholarship helps people to become teachers, “The challenge is that as more teachers of color come in, we started talking about being administrators because if you want to be a voice for change, you often have to be sitting at the administrative table.”

As Locke prepares for her new role as assistant principal, her future ambitions have grown too. “I aspire to become the superintendent of our district and somewhere in the future the United States Secretary of Education,” she said.

White applauded Locke’s ascension to an administrative leadership position, “She’s just such an advocate for kids and I think that when you have someone that shines as bright as Justine she needs to be in a position of leadership so that kids can see what’s possible and schools can see what’s possible.”

White calls Locke the foundation’s “shining star” because “she encourages everybody around her,” including all of its other scholars, and “she’s definitely a huge role model for all of us.”

The foundation’s teacher diversity efforts benefit students of all races but “especially the students of color,” White said, adding that “over half of our students are now students of color, and if they see those people in leadership positions it just kind of makes the circle fuller. Where they might go on and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a teacher,’ and it’s a role model for all of us to follow really.”

More information about the Teachers of Color Foundation and its scholarship program can be viewed here.

A recording of the commencement speech Locke gave at her recent graduation ceremony can be viewed here.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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