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JCPS's Integration Equation: Has It Paid Off?

Illustration by Carrie Neumayer

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · JCPS’s Integration Equation: Has It Paid Off?

This story is the third in a 5-part series on the proposed student assignment plan, and what it could mean for JCPS’s legacy of integration, and the future. A new story will post online each morning this week. Click here for all parts of the series.

In the fall of 1975, the rumors around busing were so bad that the district created a rumor hotline. 

White and Black mothers worked the phone lines around the clock, according to University of Louisville historian Tracy K’Meyer. They took calls, debunked misinformation and tried to dispel fears about integration.

One rumor that stuck was a false claim that Black male students were raping white female students at newly integrated high schools. WHAS11, called News 11 at the time, sent reporter Phyllis Knight to talk to Ballard principal Pat Crawford.

In the News 11 clip, posted to YouTube, Knight interviews Crawford in front of a school bus. Crawford confirmed there was no rape. But there was an incident involving a Black male student and a white female student. The Black student was suspended, Crawford said.

“Have there been other suspensions?” Knight asked.

There have been 20, Crawford said. 

All of the students suspended were Black.

The discrimination Black students faced in integrated schools in 1975, and continue to face now, is one reason why some Black Louisvillians question whether integration is working — and whether it’s worth risking resegregation for good schools in their own neighborhoods. 

Mixed Views On The Value Of Integration

Decades of research find integration has had a positive impact on outcomes for Black, Latinx and low-income students. Integration narrows the achievement gap, boosts test scores and increases college-going rates for Black, Latinx and poor students. And for all students, white and students of color, integration has been shown to promote tolerance, understanding and appreciation of differences

But integration has not been easy, especially for Black students in JCPS. 

From the start, Black students like eight-year-old Edward Pennix had to learn to steel themselves against a mob of angry white protesters who threw rocks at their school bus.

Black students also disproportionately carried the transportation burden to make integration happen. Under the original 1975 federal desegregation order, white students were bused out of their communities an average of two years, while Black students were bused an average of ten years. 

 In 1984, amid declining enrollment, JCPS decided to end mandatory busing for students in the eastern and southern sections of town, where most white students lived. Instead the district would try to draw them in voluntarily through magnet programs in the West End and downtown, such as Dupont Manual, Meyzeek Middle School, and Noe Middle School. 

Busing continued however, for Black students, who had to leave the West End and downtown so schools in the suburbs could stay integrated. 

Today, 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.

Once inside the school building, Black students faced the challenge of dealing with white teachers and administrators, many of whom showed racial prejudice, and were sometimes explicitly racist. 

Pennix said at Okolona Elementary in 1975-76, white teachers were constantly sending him and Black classmates to the principal’s office to be struck on the behind with a wooden paddle. He had never been paddled at his former all-Black school in the West End. Meanwhile white students received lesser or no punishment for similar mistakes, he said.

“It was definitely unfair,” he said.

To this day, JCPS continues to discipline Black students at disproportionate rates. In the 2019-2020 school year, schools suspended Black students at three times the rate of their white peers.

Pamela Horne was never suspended as a Black student who integrated Western High School in 1977. But she faced other types of discrimination from teachers and administrators. Horne was fifth in her class her senior year, out of 350 students. But the school counselor, a white woman, inexplicably refused to recommend her for a college scholarship, which Horne said was usually  customary for a student with Horne’s grades. 

“I remember asking her why,” Horne said. “And she said, ‘I just think you should be working with your hands. You don’t need to go to college.’”

As tough as it was with the white adults at Western, Horne says she made a lot of white friends. They went to parties together at each other’s houses, hung out at dances. 

“We all really got along,” she said. “As I was bused, the young people, we became more comfortable around each other. From where I started in middle school to where I ended in high school, I could see that progression.”

That’s one reason why Horne hopes JCPS holds onto its busing plan.

“I think it opened the minds of that generation,” she said.

But Pennix has a different take. After his experience integrating Okolona Elementary, Pennix decided he never wanted to go to school in the suburbs again. He had more resources at Okolona, things he never had at his all-Black West End school: a gym, an auditorium, a T.V. room with televisions at every angle. But he and his parents longed for his West End school, Brandeis Elementary, and the way they felt welcome there.

“It was missed,” he said. “They was happy [at Brandeis]. They was able to come over and do parent-teacher conferences, and they was able to come over and participate...But when we went to Okolona, it was over.”

“I think that’s one of this misnomers of the Civil Rights Movement, especially what came out in terms of education: that the Black community all wanted integration. In fact they didn’t. They wanted good schools,” Pennix’s wife Michelle Pennix said. 

Michelle Pennix, who is Black, and a retired JCPS principal, said for Black families, integration wasn’t just a goal in and of itself. Instead, integration was a tool for redistribution of resources — for getting the same facilities and textbooks and technology that white students were getting.

“I think now there’s this awakening that after 60 years of ‘forced busing,’ integration, it hasn’t paid off,” she said, making use of a phrase anti-integrationists used to refer to the busing plan in the 1970s.

Michelle Pennix points to the high suspension rates for Black students and the way Black students feel in their schools. A recent JCPS survey shows a third of Black high school girls do not feel a sense of belonging at their school. The Pennix’s say their own son, Solomon, who graduated a few years ago, never felt like he belonged.

Asked about JCPS’s new student assignment plan, which would allow students to stay in the West End. Edward Pennix has conflicting feelings. 

“It’s a difficult question because if the schools are equal, I’m cool with it. You know yeah, stay. it would be best. But if the schools are not equal?” Pennix asked himself aloud. 

It’s a more complicated equation. 

JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio has said he believes the proposed student assignment plan can work, that the district can build majority-Black schools that will be equitably resourced. But Pennix is skeptical.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

'Where we're at'

In the darkened auditorium of Central High School this August, four women are watching a video explaining the Jefferson County Public Schools’ new student assignment plan. 

“We are envisioning a new JCPS,” Pollio begins.

The women are part of a focus group the district organized to get reactions to its student assignment proposal. All four are Black and live, or have lived, in the West End. When the video ends, they all have concerns about the quality of the new middle and high school  school options proposed for West End students. 

“There is no option that makes me even remotely want to say, ‘I want to go to these schools,” Roz Welch tells the JCPS staff facilitating the discussion.

Welch is a product of JCPS, and she attended a magnet program at Meyzeek Middle School in the early 2000s. JCPS, like many districts, has used magnets to try to diversify schools located in Black neighborhoods since the 1980s. 

Welch is concerned that the proposed schools didn’t appear to have magnet programs capable of attracting white or affluent families. And if only families who lived nearby chose to attend the West End schools, they would without question be predominantly Black.

“You’re still going to have a segregation level inside of the West Louisville schools that you build, because you haven’t created a draw for them to come here,” she explains.

A few rows up, JCPS mother Delissa Cornelius is listening closely.

Cornelius is another Black parent questioning the value of integrated classrooms. She’s been frustrated for years with the treatment her son has received from white teachers in integrated schools.

She turned toward Welch, the woman a few rows back worried about segregation.

“I have a question, but it’s for you,” she said, turning towards Welch. 

 “Are we even concerned with diversity at this point of where we’re at?” she asked.

Tomorrow in part 4 of this series, we’re taking up the question that the U.S. Supreme Court took up in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954: Can separate ever be equal? 

This was the third story in our 5-part series on JCPS’s new student assignment proposal and the history of desegregation in JCPS. Click here for all parts of the series.

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.