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In New JCPS Student Assignment Proposal, 'Choice' Is At Odds With 'Diversity'

JCPS school bus parked outside The Academy @ Shawnee.
JCPS school bus parked outside The Academy @ Shawnee.

There are a lot of problems with the way Jefferson County Public Schools currently assigns students to schools, according to the Student Assignment Review Advisory Committee. The committee of teachers, community members and district staff met virtually Wednesday evening to evaluate the current plan for how well it promotes racial equity.

JCPS' current student assignment plan is nationally recognized for creating more racially integrated schools than most other large districts, like Chicago or Detroit. Research shows Black, Latino and Indigenous students who attend integrated schools benefit because they have greater access to the funding and political power that follows their white classmates. But many argue the plan is unfair, because it places the onus on Black students in the West End to leave their neighborhoods to attend schools in majority-white suburbs.

"About 95% of our Black students leave the community," JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said. "And only about 5% white students. And I think that is incredibly inequitable."

Committee members brought up several other related issues. The student assignment plan is hard to understand, especially for families with language barriers, JCPS Director of School Choice Cassie Blausey said. Pollio said the current plan benefits families with "social capital," who can apply to magnet programs early, navigate the system and attend open houses. He said the current plan harms students' sense of belonging.

Pollio and Blausey are on the verge of presenting a new student assignment plan to the school board for approval "in the near future." The plan has been in the works since 2017, and was originally scheduled to be voted on in July. But Pollio has said he won't proceed unless he has support from the advisory committee. The new plan, called "dual resides," would allow all middle and high school students in Louisville's majority-Black West End to attend school in their neighborhood for the first time since the 1970s. Students could also still chose to attend an East End school.

Because of segregated housing patterns, the new plan would likely increase racial segregation in one of the few districts in the country that has largely avoided segregated schools. All of the district's middle and high schools are currently meeting the required "diversity index" targets. Elementary schools, which allow for more parent choice, are more segregated.

Questions About A New Plan

WFPL News has made multiple requests for data showing how the proposed changes would impact demographics across the district. JCPS has denied those requests, saying the data is "preliminary" and not subject to open records requests.

Members of the advisory committee had questions about how the district would measure diversity at schools under the new plan. Committee member and teacher Stephanie White asked if there would be a "remedy" for schools that fell outside diversity targets. White teaches at King Elementary, which falls short of the district's diversity index with more than 90% Black and Latinx students.

Pollio said Louisville's racially segregated housing patterns would make achieving diversity difficult under the proposed plan.

"Diversity is critically important," he said "But, you know, we have to decide how much we can manufacture that."

Pollio said the remedy to achieving racial equity in schools with high concentrations of Black, Latino and poor students, will be changing the funding model.

"We really don't fund different between a school that has 95% free-and-reduced, and a school that has 85% free-and-reduced. They're essentially funded the same way, when they necessarily shouldn't be," he said.

Asked when those funding changes would occur, Pollio said they would bring the changes to the board in January.

"We're working on that part of it now," he said.

Education activist and founder of Dear JCPS, Gay Adelmann, said the district needs to be thinking bigger.

"We're in a pandemic and we're in a movement for Black lives," Adelmann said. "Everything's back on the table now."

Adelmann said if the district wants to allow students to go to school in the West End, it also needs to bring parents from the suburbs into those schools.

"Give everyone a dual reside," she said. "Why wouldn't you have everyone else in the district have their current school that their assigned to, plus a school in the West End?"

Adelmann, along with many Black parents in the West End, are not convinced that the district will bring enough resources to the West End schools to make them attractive to white families.

The committee plans to meet next week to discuss a proposal for supporting The Academy @ Shawnee and a new proposed West End middle school.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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