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Once An Integration Model, Louisville's Schools Risk Resegregating To Offer Choice

Illustration by Carrie Neumayer

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Once An Integration Model, Louisville’s Schools Risk Resegregating To Offer Choice

This story is the first in a 5-part series on the proposed student assignment plan and what it could mean for JCPS’s legacy of integration, as well as the district's future. A new story will post online each morning this week. 

Fateemah Muhammad visibly shuddered as the TARC city bus passed her on the corner of Chestnut and 24th streets in west Louisville.

The bus is a reminder of the many early mornings she spent as a student waiting on this same corner to catch the TARC to Eastern High School, 18 miles away.

The ride took an hour and a half. To get to class on time, she had to be on the corner before 6 a.m. — well before sunrise.

“I hated doing that,” said Muhammad, now 19. “So many creepy people out in the morning. I hated that.”

Going to school in her own neighborhood in the West End would have been better for her, she says. She could have been more involved in sports or other activities. She might have had an easier time getting to school. She might not have been late so often that she was placed in foster care. 

But going to school on her side of Louisville was never possible for Muhammad under the district’s current student assignment plan. JCPS assigns students from Louisville’s majority Black and low-income West End to schools in whiter, wealthier suburbs to the east and south. It’s how the district has maintained relatively integrated schools for decades. 

The onus of integration is on Black youth: according to JCPS, of the students in the West End and downtown areas who are assigned to schools across town, 95% are Black, and only 5% are white.

Now a new student assignment proposal would allow West End students an option to stay in the neighborhood. It highlights complicated truths: it will almost certainly resegregate the school district and undo a decades-long commitment to integration. But it also means more convenience for students like Muhammad, who are burdened with the logistics, travel time and disconnection from their school community. 

‘Why Even Go?’

Homelessness was a major barrier to Muhammad’s success in high school. But the 19-year-old also blames the distance, and wonders how things might have turned out differently, if she had been able to go to high school in the neighborhood. 

Muhammad was supposed to have a JCPS school bus, but she said her family moved camp so often and was facing so many other challenges, it became impossible to update the school and find a new bus stop each time. That’s why Muhammad took the TARC to get to school. This is not uncommon among students in the West End, she said. She saw many of her classmates on the long TARC ride to Eastern.

Besides having to wake up at 5 a.m., the distance between Muhammad’s home and her high school had other drawbacks. Muhammad dreamed of trying out for the basketball team, but with the long bus ride, she worried she wouldn’t have time to get her homework done once she got home from practice.

“I wasn’t able to participate in any extracurriculars,” she said.

The ride also cut into her learning time. The TARC was often late, and Eastern’s policy was that students who were tardy couldn’t go to first period. Instead, they had to wait around in the gym.

After a while, Muhammad decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Some of the times I was too tired to wake up. Other times I was like, ‘If they’re not going to let me in school, then why even go?’” Muhammad said.

Once she stopped attending school, her parents received so many truancy warnings that the state moved Muhammad into foster care. Eventually she got back in school and graduated from Marion C. Moore High School in May. Muhammad is now a full-time student at the University of Louisville.

Told about a new student assignment proposal that would give West End students like her the option to attend school in their community, Muhammad said, she’d welcome it.

“It would be way easier for me,” she said.

District Says Choice Will Bring Equity

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio says the new plan is about giving families in the West End the same options afforded to families elsewhere. The plan, called “dual resides,” would allow families in the West End and downtown to go to school close to home, or opt for an East End school or South End school as a second option. He says that if the new West End options aren’t good, families simply won’t choose the schools closer to home.

“I think it is a major equity issue that we have that the only families that are not able to access schools close to their home are those in west Louisville,” Pollio said.

The district has also been under pressure from the state department of education to make changes to the plan. In a 2018 audit of the district, former Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis wrote that the student assignment plan has “a distinct negative impact on the most vulnerable populations of JCPS students.” 

JCPS agreed to address these concerns in a corrective action plan in 2018, in order to avoid state takeover.

To make this proposal work, the district will have to invest at least $91 million to build a new middle school in the West End and renovate The Academy @ Shawnee, which serves grades 6-12. Pollio said the district will likely have to build a second new West End middle school, and possibly a second high school, too.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions: How would the plan impact enrollment and staffing at schools in the east and south ends? How will the district pay for building and resourcing new schools? And perhaps most importantly for some, how would it impact the racial diversity of JCPS schools?
( Here is where you can find out what school options your child would have based on your address under the proposal.)

Pollio has said the recent 7-cent property tax increase will help pay for the new schools. However, the district has refused to provide estimates of how the plan will impact demographics and staffing.

Plan Risks Ending A Legacy Of Integration

Jefferson County Public Schools first integrated in 1975, after the local NAACP and other civil rights groups won a federal desegregation lawsuit.

The judge ordered the diverse city school system to merge with the mostly-white county school system. White students were sent to predominantly Black schools, and Black students to predominantly white schools. The move was welcomed by many, but also met with violent protests by white opponents, including the Ku Klux Klan.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor Gary Orfield was called in to speak in support of the district’s desegregation plan amid the 1975 protests. Orfield is one of the nation’s leading researchers on school segregation, and he was in Jefferson County at several pivotal moments in the district’s history of desegregation.

Orfield came back in 1984, when then-superintendent Don Ingwerson believed the district was released from its desegregation order, and attempted to end integration efforts for elementary schools. Orfield brokered negotiations between JCPS and the local chapter of the NAACP to keep parts of the integration plan intact. In the early 2000s, once the district was formally released from the 1975 desegregation order, Orfield helped JCPS voluntarily maintain integration. This became difficult as the federal courts, filled with Reagan-era appointees, turned increasingly unfriendly to voluntary desegregation and diversity initiatives. 

Orfield testified in favor of the district’s student assignment plan in the Meredith case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007. And in 2012, he worked with JCPS to preserve integration under new restrictions against using students’ race to assign them to schools. 

But in 2019 and 2020, as the district considered new pivotal changes to student assignment, nobody called Orfield.

When he saw the limited materials the district released about the plan this summer, Orfield was shocked that a key piece of any student assignment plan was left out of the conversation: race.

“I was stunned,” Orfield said. “It wasn’t even mentioned. It was as if they were designing a plan for a city that didn’t have any race and poverty problems.”

Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country. But JCPS by and large has avoided creating the segregated middle and high schools seen elsewhere. In fact, national outlets regularly praise the district for staying the path of integration: The New York Timesand The Atlantic have both written about JCPS recently.The district even earned a mention on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight in 2016.

From the way district leaders talk today about the current plan, you wouldn’t know it had inspired headlines like “I Grew Up In A City Where Busing Worked,” or “The City That Believed In Desegregation.”

Instead, as top staff and consultants promote changes in public meetings and focus groups and YouTube videos, they talk about how complicated the current plan is. 

Staff point to the patchwork of school assignment zones and dizzying array of middle to high school “feeder patterns.” They note that it is difficult for parents to look at the map and know where their child will attend school. They describe the long bus rides for students, like Fateemah Muhammad.

But they fail to mention why the school assignment plan looks the way it does — it needed to be complicated to maintain racial integration in a segregated city. 

Orfield, who helped design the current plan, admits that it’s not perfect. But he worries replacing it with the proposal could result in highly segregated schools in the West End. West Louisville residents are 81% people of color--mostly Black. The median household income is about $21,000 a year, and just 7% of residents have a bachelor’s degree.

“I'm not saying [the existing integration plan] is easy, or that it solves all the problems or anything like that, but segregation is vicious and harmful,” Orfield said. “We know from a half-century of research,including a number of large studies recently, that schools that are segregated by race and poverty are systematically unequal and harm students for life,” he said.

Money, resources and power tend to follow white kids to their schools. For example, white, wealthy parents at integrated schools may be able to raise PTA money for a new library. Schools with majority Black, low-income parents can’t raise as much, or donate their time to school improvement. 

The teachers and administrators that serve schools that are majority poor, Black, Latinx or Indigenous also tend to be less experienced. Turnover is higher, too, and research shows these factors negatively impact student opportunity and achievement.

Asked what he makes of Pollio’s confidence in the district’s ability to improve student outcomes as it resegregates, Orfield is unconvinced.

“Just tell me some city where it’s worked,” he said. “Nobody’s ever come up with a place that has been segregated and equal.”

In our second story, we’ll follow two students through their experiences integrating mostly-white schools in the 1970s.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that in JCPS 95% of students who are assigned to schools outside of their community are Black, and 5% are white. That statistic applies only to the West End and downtown areas.

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