JCPS high school assignment map

JCPS uses satellite areas to split the West End for school assignment. | Screenshot JCPS

Amid a national discussion on busing for desegregation, Jefferson County Public Schools may have found a model that balances diversity with equitable school choice. 

A committee tasked with reviewing how JCPS assigns students to schools gave district leaders the green light to further develop a “dual resides” plan last week. In its current form, students in the West End — who are typically bused east in the district to create diverse classrooms — will be allowed to go to a school they’d typically be assigned to or one closer to their neighborhood. 

District officials say the proposal, for which they’re seeking consultant advice and community feedback before a school board vote, corrects past ills of limited choice for black and low-income students. It hopes to reduce the burden of integrating classrooms, which has fallen on black students and their families for years. 

But concerns linger that equity in choice may result in higher concentrations of poverty and race in schools — a step back to segregation, some fear. 

JCPS reviews assignment every five to seven years, but this go-around brings additional pressure. Under a settlement to avoid a state takeover, the district is required to modify the plan in some capacity by the 2020-21 school year.

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said he doesn’t have specific expectations for the new proposal. “My expectation has always been that the district would engage its stakeholders and revise the plan in a way that ensures all students in the district are served well,” Lewis stated.

“Regardless of the location of the school or its racial and socioeconomic demographic composition, parents and students have the right to expect high-quality schools where students have access to high-quality, effective teachers and high-quality curriculum,” he continued in a statement. 

“It is our responsibility to create the conditions and allocate resources to make that possible.”

Diane Porter, the school board chairwoman who represents the West End, is waiting for more information before deciding what changes need to be made. Throughout a recent interview, she stressed quality education for all students must come first in all district and board decisions. 

“This is extremely important that we get this right,” she said.

How we got here 

Two things typically drive school demographics: school zoning and housing patterns. 

Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country, according to the urban planning expert Josh Poe. Racial segregation in the area stems from Confederate soldiers arriving after the Civil War, he said. 

The decades that followed included urban renewal projects that demolished black businesses and city planning efforts that siphoned much of the African American population west of Ninth Street, Poe said. 

Redlining, the practice of assigning value to homes heavily based on how many black people lived in the area, compounded the issue. Homes in far eastern Jefferson County, which had not been developed at the time, received some of the highest values because they were not adjacent to black communities, Poe said. 

The result, which continues to the present, is an intensely segregated city and black families locked out of wealth creation, he said. 

“When you have a situation like that, you have a place that just becomes saturated with racism,” Poe said. “If you don’t see people, you don’t know (people). And if you don’t know people, you don’t acknowledge people.” 

In 1975, Louisville city schools and Jefferson County merged, creating the district we have today. Under court-ordered desegregation, JCPS began transporting students to counteract the housing patterns that divided the city. Then, students were assigned to schools based on the first letter of their last name. 

Around 1983, the assignment plan began shifting to a “managed choice” system based more on geography like what is currently used. The use of magnet programs and satellite areas to create diverse schools have their roots in this era, according to Tracy K’Meyer, a University of Louisville historian.

“Choice, choice, choice — this is like the mantra here,” K’Meyer, who wrote a book on the district’s assignment plan, said. 

In the late 1990s, attorney Teddy Gordon sued on behalf of parents in the district who wanted their kids to attend Central High School, which was closer to their neighborhood. It was the beginning of the argument for neighborhood schools, and a chance to return to predominantly black schools. 

After the desegregation order was lifted in 2000, JCPS could have gone to a solely geography-based plan. Instead, it used a race-based plan to maintain racial diversity in its schools. 

Then a white parent, represented again by Gordon, sued the district after her child was denied a spot in one school and sent to another to meet racial quotas. Her elementary-aged child had over a 90-minute bus ride each day, according to a timeline maintained by Gordon’s office. 

The suit made its way to the Supreme Court, which struck down the plan in 2007. In what is now referred to as the Meredith ruling, the court said students cannot be assigned to schools solely by race. 

JCPS, again, could have given up there, K’Meyer said — “ ‘No, we value diversity in the schools … we must find some way to do it,’ ” she said of JCPS’ thoughts. The district redid the plan, this time assigning students based on a combination of race, socioeconomic status and family educational attainment. 

Gordon, who is approaching 50 years of practicing law and has about 30 open suits against JCPS, maintains the district does not differentiate between race and income level.  

Still, the plan relies predominantly on black, poor students from the West End attending other schools to have diverse classrooms. Opponents of the plan, asking the district to end busing argue busing failed to improve outcomes. 

“We haven’t been doing ‘this’ for 40 years,” K’Meyer said. The system has gone through major and minor changes since, she said. 

Creating diverse classrooms through assignment succeeded in improving outcomes for students of color, research has found. Studying in diverse schools means better academic outcomes and a higher sense of belonging for students of color. It helps prepare students of all races for a diverse world, Porter noted. 

Opponents of the plan, including Gordon, counter that JCPS has had a 30-point achievement gap between its white and black students for years. If diverse classrooms were the key to improved outcomes, why hasn’t that gap narrowed, they ask. 

Transportation is one tool in a toolbox of a district striving for racial equity. Earlier this year, JCPS passed a racial equity plan targeting a myriad of disproportionalities for students and employees of color. This month, district officials announced multiple proposals to recruit and retain minority teachers and classified staff. 

But there are larger systems at play when it comes to student assignment. Housing patterns are still not diverse, meaning switching to a plan where student attend whatever school is closest to their home — “neighborhood schools” — means schools will not be diverse. 

 “How does a board of education fix that?” Porter asked. 

Teddy Gordon

Teddy Gordon, center, filed a federal lawsuit that could end JCPS’ student assignment plan. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Where we’re at now 

JCPS uses two styles of student assignment, one for elementary schools and one for middle and high. Unless a student applies for and is accepted into a magnet program, they will attend the school their neighborhood is assigned to — their resides school. 

Elementary schools are arranged in clusters, with students attending one of the schools in their cluster unless they opt for a magnet program. Generally, these clusters are made of schools close to each other geographically. While a student may need to pass a school to attend a different school in their cluster, they are highly likely to still be in the general area of their neighborhood. 

Middle and high schools, instead, give each student one resides option. If a student doesn’t attend a magnet school, they’ll go to the resides. The current plan carves up the West End into satellite areas — small bits of a neighborhood that are assigned to a resides school outside of that neighborhood. 

The same is not done elsewhere in the district. Students outside of the West End do not have satellite areas sending them into the West End. Instead, they attend a school near their home. 

Because of this, many consider black and poor students to bear most of the burden of achieving diverse classrooms. While students in the West End are assigned to be bused across the county, students elsewhere in the county are not assigned to schools inside the West End. 

Instead, the district uses magnet programs to attract students to schools in and around the West End. These programs are ones of choice: Their attendees have proactively applied to attend the school, and are not automatically assigned there. 

The system, while praised for both its array of quality programs and its ability to diversify classrooms, does not place a burden on white students to carry the diversity load like the assignment plan. If they want to go, they can. If they don’t, then they don’t have to. 

Outside the diversity burden, the plan has a slew of criticisms. When students attend schools far away, parental involvement takes a hit, critics argue. Students are less likely to be involved in school activities when they have to catch a bus after school. 

James Craig, a lawyer who represents eastern Louisville on the school board, said much of a school’s outcome is “based on the population that you have in the building.” 

“If you have parents who are able to travel to the high school closest to them and participate in the PTA, or help with band practice, or football practice, if you have concentrations of wealth … you’re going to have better educational outcomes,” he said.

Students in the West End get less sleep in order to catch early buses, impacting academic performance, critics add. 

The average JCPS bus ride for elementary schools is around 25 minutes, according to district spokeswoman Renee Murphy. It is around 31 minutes for middle and high schoolers. 

The first JCPS student is picked up at 5:15 a.m., but they’re heading to a magnet program they chose to attend, Murphy said. In “many cases” longer ride times are for students traveling to magnet programs, Murphy added. 

Porter, the chairwoman representing the West End, said transportation time concerns are among the most common from her constituents. Some understand it. 

“If I get my choice (of school), then I tend to not be concerned about the time on the bus,” Porter said. 

Student transportation costs the district about $79.8 million a year, but that includes standard transportation to the nearest school and to magnet programs that students chose. 

Based on past JCPS testimony, Gordon believes about two-thirds of the transportation budget goes to sending students from west to east. Murphy, from JCPS, said the district does not know if that’s true and would need to examine bus routes on a case-by-case basis to determine each family’s unique situation. 

If true, that’s millions that can be spent on improving facilities in the West End, hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes and incentivizing teachers to stay in high-need schools, Gordon said. 

Citing the criticisms, the Louisville Tea Party is opposed to the use of busing in the district, appearing at a recent school board meeting to speak against it. 

Theresa Camoriano, the group’s president, maintains those against busing are not against racial desegregation. Instead, she said, they’re focused on providing excellent educations for all students in the district. 

“Students and families should not have to worry that they will not be able to attend their neighborhood school and will have to travel long distances every day to get an education that is no better than what they could have gotten in their own neighborhood,” Camoriano said. 

“If they choose to go to a distant school, that is fine, but they should not be forced to do so.”

JCPS student assignment committee

JCPS’ student assignment committee meets in February 2019. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Where we go from here 

The dual resides proposal seeks to remedy those inequities for middle and high schoolers. (Elementary assignment changes have not been proposed thus far.)

The proposal is in its infancy, potentially up for changes after a consultant review and feedback from school board members, the assignment committee and the community. 

As it stands, the proposal gives all of the middle and high school students in the West End an additional resides school. Outside of magnet programs, they could choose between a school similar to their current resides option or one closer to their neighborhood. 

Under the current proposal, students outside of the West End will not have a second resides option. 

“(The proposal) wasn’t about simply providing more choices to all students,” Jennifer Brislin, a JCPS spokeswoman, said. “It was about improving equity – a group of students didn’t have the same opportunity (to attend a school close to home) as other students.” 

Gordon believes the proposal would violate the 2007 Supreme Court ruling because it does not give all students the same dual resides option. In his opinion, it continues to make assignment decisions based on race. 

Since the 2007 ruling, he said, only one person has wanted to sue the district over the assignment plan. He would need someone to want to sue the district over the dual resides plan, and he seemed doubtful someone would come forward.

“They’re probably going to get away with it,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Gordon believes now that the choice problem could be off the table, it will turn into a resourcing issue. He believes the schools in the West End will not receive the funding, the facilities, the teacher support, the security they need. It will be a return to the resourcing issue in 1975 when predominantly white schools received more funds than predominantly black schools. 

“We’re back to square one,” he said. 

Since all of the middle schools in the West End are fully magnet programs, district officials say they will need to build a new middle school in the area to accommodate students who opt to stay in the area. JCPS approved a $120 million plan to build new schools in the coming years. A West End middle school is not on the list. 

Students could attend magnet schools in the area. One committee member, Cindy Cushman, mentioned briefly the idea of splitting some of those schools to have a resides section, with the rest of the school continuing as a magnet program. 

Magnet programs have been relatively successful in giving students choice in how they learn and where, K’Meyer said. But admissions criteria, particularly those involving behavior or attendance, can often keep students of color out of choice programs, she said. 

Students of color are around three times more likely to be suspended, according to district data, while research suggests that students of all races misbehave at the same rate. K’Meyer said she would like to see behavior-based admissions criteria changed or dropped to account for the disproportionality and allow for more equitable access. 

The committee, after tentatively green-lighting the dual resides concept, began what is expected to be a multimeeting discussion of access to magnet programs last week. 

Officials and committee members fear creating schools with high concentrations of one race or of students on free and reduced lunch. 

Craig, the school board member, says the proposal is a “more equitable outcome than what we have now.” He said it is “alarming” more concentrations of race or wealth could be created. The district would “have to work hard to fight against it” with resourcing. 

Schools with high levels of low-income students tend to demand more resources to help with student needs. More funds and resources could be allocated to high-need schools if needed, Superintendent Marty Pollio said, but some committee members and K’Meyer fear that won’t happen as it needs to. 

“It tends not to happen, or it tends not to happen to the extent it would be needed,” K’Meyer said.

In addition to strained resources and high levels of poverty, it could make schools less diverse — the opposite of what the assignment plan set out to do years ago.

One parent and committee member, Angela Bowens, voted against the proposal. It seemed like it could be a step back to a more segregated past, she told other reporters

Porter, the board chairwoman, understood the sentiment. People in her district remember what it was like in the not so recent history, she said. They do not want to go back to that time. 

“There is a history in this city … we’re not the same as we were in 1975,” Porter said. Things change, but “quality education — that should never change.” 

This article has been updated to remove an unclear data point.