PASCO -- Susan Sparks was a second-grader in the mid-1960s at Spokane's predominantly black Lincoln Elementary School when district officials closed it as part of their school integration efforts.
Sparks told the Herald that she was bused up the hill to Roosevelt Elementary School, which had mostly white students.
"I remember that experience, how scary it was and how we were treated for the first few months," said Sparks, now principal at Ruth Livingston Elementary School in Pasco. "We were called racial names. Those kinds of things you don't forget."
While some of her new classmates gave her a cold shoulder, her teachers gave her an accepting embrace. They welcomed her to the school and treated her with the same kindness they treated any other student.
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Sparks will receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award during the 22nd annual Bell Ringing Ceremony today at Columbia Basin College. College officials lauded her dedication to the community around Ruth Livingston -- where she has worked for almost all of her 30-year career as an educator -- and her adherence to the civil rights leader's philosophy of acceptance and kindness.
"It was a unanimous pick," said Martin Valadez, CBC's vice president of diversity and outreach.
King Jr.'s philosophy was similar to that practiced by Spark's own teachers, Sparks said. She said she's sought to follow it herself, whether in the classroom or walking Ruth Livingston's halls as principal.
"I think it's up to us as adults to keep (equality) at the forefront," she said.
Sparks started at Ruth Livingston as a third-grade teacher in 1982. The school itself was in the midst of an integration program, with students being bused to the West Pasco school from the east side of Pasco, which is predominantly Hispanic.
She became principal at the school in 2000. With hundreds more students than it was designed to serve, Sparks oversees pupils from a variety of backgrounds, from white and Hispanic and Somali refugees to students living in poverty. The Pasco School District's Highly Capable program is also housed there.
Sparks, who wanted to be a teacher from a young age, said she also wants her students to know school is a place they belong. That's why she's emulated King Jr. in her role as an educator.
"You always want to emulate someone who's positive," she said.
Sparks established an annual program at her school that celebrates King Jr.'s legacy and helps students learn about his contributions. She's tied his philosophy to more contemporary problems facing students, such as bullying.
The civil rights leader also has personal connections to her life. Sparks' parents grew up in the South and experienced racism and discrimination. She remembers their grief at the news of King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968.
Sparks has happy memories of attending CBC's bell-ringing ceremony with her husband and two children. Her children visited their grandmother and selected one of the bells from her bell collection to ring at the ceremony.
"That was just a special day for us as a family," Sparks said.
Valadez said Sparks was one of nine nominees for this year's award, a high number of recommendations compared to prior years. Sparks was actually nominated twice -- individually and jointly with her husband.
He said the award committee was impressed by Sparks' commitment to Ruth Livingston and her role in its success. Ruth Livingston students regularly exceed state averages on standardized tests, has been a Washington School of Distinction for the past three yearsz and is the only school in the Tri-Cities named as a Reward School this school year. Reward schools receive federal funding to aid low-income children but also maintain high achievement standards.
Sparks' commitment goes beyond academics. She's worked with her school's population of Somali refugee students to assure their cultural needs, such as dietary restrictions, are met.
She was named Elementary School Principal of the Year for Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties by the Washington School Principals and Elementary School Principals of Washington.
"The writeup on Mrs. Sparks was outstanding," said CBC Board Chairman Duke Mitchell, who also sat on the award selection committee.
Sparks said she was humbled just to be considered for the award and said she's just sought to do her job as best as she can.
Still, she said this year's bell-ringing ceremony is going to hold a special place in her heart.
"My husband and I were actually looking at the bells (Friday) night trying to decide which one to take," she said.