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Can JCPS Proposal Bring Equity? Segregated Elementary Schools Raise Questions

Illustration by Carrie Neumayer

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Can JCPS Proposal Bring Equity? Segregated Elementary Schools Raise Questions

This story is the fourth 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. 

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio was in a suit and a hard hat this fall touring a $40 million renovation underway at The Academy @ Shawnee in the West End. 

For decades, most students in the majority-Black, low-income West End and downtown areas have been assigned to schools to the east and south in order to maintain racial integration. Under a new student assignment proposal called “Dual Resides,” West End students could continue to take the trip across town, or, for the first time since 1975, they could choose to stay in the West End. The Academy @ Shawnee would become their home high school. 

But the building needed a lot of work. Until recently the entire third floor was condemned and blocked off. It’s been that way since 1981. 

“I believe over the next decade, 10 years from now, Shawnee will be a thriving school, with a thousand students in here,” Pollio said. “Great programming, 100% transition readiness. Kids going to college, and really being a vibrant part of this community.”

They are high hopes for a school that will serve overwhelmingly low-income Black students, a population that JCPS has so far struggled to serve well — even more so in segregated settings like Shawnee will become. 

“Everybody is skeptical,” west Louisville mom Carla Robinson said.

Robinson, who is Black, loves the idea of being able to send her kids to middle and high school in the neighborhood. She wants that for her neighbors as well, many of whom she said struggle to participate in their children’s school experiences in the East and South ends. West Louisville has some of the deepest poverty in the city. Many parents don’t own cars, or have the time to make trips across town in between multiple low-wage jobs, Robinson said.

“People say, ‘Well, people don’t want to be involved.’ Yes they do!” she said. “It’s just the access. The access is not there for every single parent.”

But Robinson is doubtful that JCPS will fund the new West End schools with what students need under the proposed student assignment plan.

“Because history has told us,” she said. “They’re not going to get the same resources. They’re not going to get all the same knowledge-base from teachers. They’re not going to get all the same experiences as these other kids that attend other schools. And that’s unfair.”

Studies over many decades have shown that segregated schools have negative impacts on outcomes and opportunity for Black, Latinx and indigenous students, and that integrated schools have benefits.

But we don’t have to look to other states or cities to see the impact segregation has on student outcomes. JCPS’s elementary schools offer a glimpse at how children at the district’s most segregated schools have fared.

While JCPS’s middle schools and high schools have remained relatively integrated, elementary schools have not. In the 1980s, white and Black parents pushed for their younger children to be able to go to school in their neighborhood. To accommodate this, the district came up with the cluster system: Depending on where parents live, they have access to a different cluster of elementary schools. 

In the West End, parents can choose between elementary schools down the street, or schools out in the suburbs — strikingly similar to what the district is proposing now for middle and high school under “Dual Resides.”

Many families pick elementary schools close to home. And because housing is segregated, that means many students attend segregated elementary schools.

The district knows this. JCPS tracks the diversity of each school through a formula called the “diversity index.” It uses the demographics of students’ neighborhoods, including race, income and educational attainment, to give each school a score between 1 and 3. Schools closer to 1 have the most disadvantaged students: low-income students and students of color. Schools closer to 3 have the most advantaged students: white students from wealthier families. A school with a 2 is considered integrated, with a socioeconomically balanced student body. All JCPS middle and high schools fall have scores in the target range: 1.4 to 2.5.

Elementary schools are a different story. Out of 91 elementary schools, 20 are outside of the “diversity guideline,” meaning they are overwhelmingly Black, brown and poor; or overwhelmingly wealthy and white.

Maupin Elementary, where Carla Robinson’s children attend, is one of those schools. Maupin, which is located in the West End’s Parkland neighborhood, is the most segregated school in the district, according to the diversity index. Its students are 95 percent students of color, mostly Black. Ninety percent of students are low-income and receive free or reduced-price lunch. 

The building is new, and Robinson loves the staff, but there aren’t many experienced teachers.

“Most of the teachers are new. They don’t have as much education,” she said.

For some schools at the lower end of the “diversity guideline,” it is hard to argue that they are integrated. Take Mill Creek Elementary, in Shively. Its diversity index score is a 1.4 — the lowest score acceptable to the district.  But Mill Creek is 92% students of color, mostly Black, and 88% of students are low-income. 

Michelle Pennix was the principal there for more than 20 years before she retired.

Pennix said the lack of resources was obvious. The school had a Quick Recall team. In Quick Recall, students face off with teams from other schools to see who can answer questions in math, English, science and social studies the quickest. At matches the Mill Creek kids would show up with pencils and paper to write down their answers and take notes. Other teams from schools with more white students would arrive with laptops bought through PTA funds.

The Mill Creek library was a particular pain point.

“It was literally two classrooms with the wall taken down between them,” Pennix said. “To my knowledge there’s not a worse-looking library in the city for a school.”

When Pennix was hired in 1998, the outgoing principal said the school was next on the list for a new library. By the time Michelle retired this year, there were still no plans for a new library to be built.

Analysis by WFPL News shows a disturbing but unsurprising trend across the district’s elementary schools. The more segregated a school is, the less access to experienced, educated teachers there is, and the worse the outcomes are for students.

The higher the percentage of Black and Latinx students in an elementary school, the less likely their teachers are to hold masters degrees. At Mill Creek, for example, 57% of teachers hold masters degrees or higher. Meanwhile at Bloom Elementary, which is less than 15% Black and Latinx, 96% have a master’s degree or higher. 

Maupin and the districts’ other most segregated elementary schools also have the worst teacher turnover. Meanwhile, schools with whiter and wealthier students attract and retain more highly trained and experienced staff. 

The impacts of segregation also play out in the testing data. The more segregated an elementary school is, the worse Black and low-income students do on state tests. At Maupin, fewer than 5% of low-income students are on grade level for math. 

St. Matthews Elementary is integrated, and takes kids from the same zip code as Maupin. But at St. Matthews 41% of low-income kids are on grade level.

WFPL analysis of PTA records shows PTAs raise and spend far more in whiter wealthier schools than in majority Black and Latinx schools.

Maupin Elementary’s PTA spent $1,277 in 2018-2019. The PTA for Bloom Elementary, which is less than 15% Black and Latinx, spent $87,132 that year.

Robinson worries about these same trends playing out in middle and high schools under the new student assignment proposal. 

“So what are you going to put in place to give us different outcomes?”

Tomorrow: We’ll put that question to JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio in part 5 of this series.

For previous stories, visit WFPL.org/studentassignment.

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

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