WALLA WALLA -- Noah Lerner doesn't remember hearing much about the civil rights movement when he was in public school. Now a senior at a Whitman College in rural Washington, Lerner aims to ensure some students learn more about a key moment in America's history.
Whitman College is partnering with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala., to help its students teach schoolchildren about the civil rights movement in Walla Walla.
The small city known more for its sweet onions and wine in the state's southeast corner might seem an unlikely place to engage students in the topic of racial justice: Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the population and even less at the college, and Washington sits many miles from the movement's heated center in the Deep South.
But the inland Northwest has long garnered attention for white supremacist activity -- just last year, police rerouted a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Spokane after a bomb was found along the original route -- and the rapidly growing Latino population has raised its own concerns about civil rights.
Almost one-third of the 6,000 students enrolled in Walla Walla schools are Hispanic.
Washington also was one of 35 states to receive a failing grade last fall on a Southern Poverty Law Center study examining state standards and curriculum requirements for the modern civil rights movement.
Some states, particularly in the West, allow local districts to dictate curriculum, which could attribute for some of the low scores. But the findings are in line with weaknesses in student achievement in U.S. history overall, where just 12 percent of high school seniors showed proficiency on federal tests in 2010.
The farther away you get from the South, the greater the chance civil rights education will be lacking in the classroom, said Maureen Costello, director of the center's Teaching Tolerance project. But she added, the irony is that civil rights violations happened everywhere and continue today.
"We liked the size of Walla Walla, where you could have a district-wide impact. And we recognized that this could be a great pilot plan, where if this is successful, we could get other colleges on board."
Whitman College publishes an annual study on the state of Washington's Latino population, which in the past has detailed a lack of effective political representation, failure to benefit from the federal earned income tax credit and recommendations for closing the educational achievement gap.
What's lost in classroom discussions of the civil rights movement is the teaching of it as a "living civics lesson" and the connection between social issues today, Costello said. Civil rights questions among the Latino population and the longstanding activity of white supremacist groups in the region, she said, highlight the need for improvement.
"The more you can teach about this full history of the United States, the more you can combat the ignorance that makes people vulnerable to this kind of influence," she said.
About 100 Whitman students received training from the center last month to teach classes suited for students in second, fifth, seventh and 11th grade at each school in the district this week.
The program aims to highlight the contributions of many blacks in the quest for equal rights, beyond those of Martin Luther King Jr., who has long been the face of the civil rights movement.
Second-graders will learn about sit-ins to protest a "whites only" lunch counter inside a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C, while fifth-graders will hear about Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player, and others who supported his effort to integrate the sport.
Seventh-graders will study some of the leading women in the civil rights movement to better understand their role, including Daisy Lee Bates, who sheltered nine students before and after school each day when they were desegregating an Arkansas high school.
Students in 11th grade will read King's 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail, where he was confined after being arrested at a protest against racial segregation.
Many of the participating Whitman students are recognizing holes in their own civil rights education, said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement.
"They're realizing the absence of a huge body of knowledge that is important to them, especially to those students who want to go on to make positive change in the world and make their mark in a just society," he said. "And even if the historical details may not resonate with schoolchildren, the context does."
Mark Higgins, communications director for Walla Walla schools, calls the program "a gift" for a district focused on teaching its students to respect all people in all situations.
"Whether it's a gender issue, an ethnic issue, whatever the case may be, we want our students to learn there is hope with work and effort to overcome injustice," he said. "To have 100 college students ready and willing to come onto our campuses and help share these lessons is very powerful."