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Diversity Or Choice: Pollio Says JCPS Has A Decision To Make

Illustration by Carrie Neumayer

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Diversity Or Choice: Pollio Says JCPS Has A Decision To Make

This story is the last 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. For the full series visit wfpl.org/studentassignment.

Jefferson County Public Schools is at a crossroads. For decades the district has been looked to as a leader in school integration efforts. And now the district ponders a new student assignment plan that would most certainly increase segregation. 

But JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio doesn’t see it that way.

“I am not a proponent of keeping kids in the neighborhood or segregating schools,” Pollio said. 

For Pollio, this proposal is about giving families in the majority-Black West End and downtown areas the choice to go to a middle or high school close to home. Since 1984, most West End students have been assigned to schools across town in wealthier, whiter suburbs. It’s how the district has maintained school integration in a city with severely segregated housing.

“What I am saying is that it should be a parents’ choice, just like every other family in Jefferson County has….The only ones that don’t are primarily Black and Latinx kids who live in West Louisville,” Pollio said.

He acknowledges that schools would become less diverse under the plan. But that’s a trade-off he’s willing to make.

“That is the difficult choice between choice and diversity,” he told the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday night. “That's something we would have to wrestle with that's been wrestled with us in the community for 50 years, is who gets choice? And who doesn't?”  

Of the students in the West End and downtown areas who are bused across town, 95% are Black students, and only 5% are white. During a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Pollio called this a “racial equity issue.”

JCPS surveys show West End parents would like to have close-to-home options, but not at the expense of quality education. Research shows segregated schools suffer from myriad issues: trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, less funding from PTAs, less pull with school boards and more students with high needs. 

While middle and high schools have stayed relatively integrated in JCPS, its elementary schools are more segregated.Analysis by WFPL News reveals that where segregation exists in JCPS, students are struggling.

West End mom Carla Robinson says parents want close-to-home options, but they also want to know: What’s the plan to make sure these new segregated middle schools and high schools don’t have the same problems?

“What are you going to put in place to give us different outcomes?” she asked.

Funding Defines The Plan

For Pollio, the key to making this student assignment proposal work will be getting schools the funding they need.

“We are going to have to resource them better than we've ever resourced them before,” he said during Tuesday’s board meeting. 

Overall, the 7-member board has been supportive of changing student assignment. On Tuesday members praised JCPS staff for their work on the plan, which has been in the works since 2017. The board has received occasional updates through the process. But some members seemed concerned about the possibility of creating schools with high concentrations of poverty. 

“We know from data that children fare better in educational spaces when there is not only racial diversity in the classrooms, but also economic diversity. How will this process ensure that the schools are fully diverse, both racially and economically?” asked district 6 board member Corrie Shull. 

Pollio replied that segregated housing would make achieving racial and economic diversity “very difficult.”

“I think the answer, and I believe this thoroughly, is to pour resources into the school,” he said.

According to Pollio, this is possible now because the district has recently passed a 7-cent property tax increase. The tax is facing a legal challenge. But if the district wins, it would raise approximately $54 million a year. The board has earmarked $12 million a year for the highest-need schools.

This tax alone will not solve all the district’s financial problems. A state audit this fall found the district still has “inadequate” revenue, and recommended adding a utility tax.

In addition to the tax increase, Pollio wants to change the funding formula so that more money goes to schools with the most low-income students. The change would need approval from the board next year. 

Schools would be divided into three or four “tiers.” The superintendent suggested schools in the highest tier, with the most low-income students, would receive extra funding for reduced class sizes, for example. 

The district has outlined a plan to support the proposed west Louisville middle school and the Academy @ Shawnee, which serves grades 6-12 and would become the close-to-home option for all students in the West End and downtown. The location of the new middle school has not been chosen, and would not likely be complete until fall of 2023.

Until then, the new west Louisville middle schools students would attend school in a temporary location.

The extra supports proposed for the schools include smaller class sizes, additional counselors and mental health professionals, a tablet or device for every student, extended learning days for students and additional days of professional development for teachers.

In addition, Pollio wants to create financial incentives for staff who choose to work in high-need schools so more experienced teachers are in the most challenging schools.

JCPS already tends to fund higher-needs schools at higher rates — “however, it’s not intentional enough,” Pollio said.

‘How do we start over?’

Kish Cumi Price is education policy director for the Louisville Urban League. She’s also a Black parent who lives in the West End, and based on the district’s current track record, she’s not convinced the proposal in its current form can work.

“If you haven’t seen a successful model of a school that’s properly resourced that serves students who are primarily Black and brown and/or high poverty then, how can you trust that that will be the case with this new plan?” she said.

Price says JCPS needs to think about bigger, bolder changes to address root causes of problems serving low-income students, Black students and other students of color. 

“How do we start over, and make this better?” she said.

And now in the midst of a racial justice movement and a pandemic, Price said, it’s the perfect time to make big changes.

“I think it is possible. I think it is the time, and I think we need to do that work,” she said.

‘They just deserve better’

It’s clear there are no easy answers. But it’s also clear that JCPS has to get this right. 

Changing student assignment will have dramatic consequences for the children of west Louisville — kids who are already being left behind in so many ways. 

Kids like Carla Robinson’s children and her neighbors’ children.

Robinson loves west Louisville. But it has suffered from decades of disinvestment, discriminatory housing practices and over-policing. In the last ten years, gun violence has become a scourge. Even with a month left in the year, 2020 has already broken records for homicides and gun violence. 

“I need these kids when they grow up to have the same opportunity that I did: To be able to go to college, to be able to graduate from college, and be able to come back to our neighborhood and change our neighborhood,” Robinson said.

Before the district potentially resegregates, Robinson thinks JCPS should figure out what it takes to serve schools with high concentrations of Black, brown and low-income students, because so far, it hasn’t. She points back to her own children’s school, Maupin Elementary. For the entire time her oldest child went to school there, Maupin was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. This year Robinson’s youngest child started kindergarten there.

“Excuse my French,” she said, “but I’ll be damned if my child graduates from Maupin and it’s the same exact statistics.”

For now, Robinson said she’ll keep putting pressure on JCPS to make big and bold changes, and to follow through on promises so that kids in the West End don’t keep falling through the cracks.

“I can’t allow that to happen,” she said. “Not for my children and not for anybody else’s around here. They just deserve better.”

This is the final installment of our 5-part series on student assignment and the history of desegregation in JCPS. Find the whole series at wfpl.org/studentassignment.

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.

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