A school bus pulls into the Meyzeek Middle School parking lot Thursday afternoon. Instead of carrying students, inside are computers and printers and Internet.
Jefferson County Public Schools’ mobile bus program helps the district reach parents who haven’t registered or enrolled their child—and who may never even apply for elementary schools when the application period opens on Monday.
Last year, JCPS had roughly 2,000 new kindergarten students whose parents didn’t apply during the application period—out of about 7,500 new students.
JCPS relies on parents to engage the application process—to take advantage of the school choice system its leaders tout.
It’s an opportunity to find a school that fits the child—and potentially to steer them to better schools. Avoiding the process means the child may or may not end up in the right school for her.
And not all schools and clusters are equal.
Elementary school parents now live in one of 13 cluster areas in which they can choose between five to eight schools. But the best rated school in some clusters, like No. 3 serving the Shively area, didn’t perform as well on state test scores than the worst-scoring school in Cluster 8 covering southeastern Jefferson County.
In other words, the child of a Cluster 8 parent who didn’t engage in the application process would automatically end up in a better school (in terms of state test results) than all of Cluster 3.
Here’s a comparison of the 13 clusters using the state’s overall scores for schools, which considers test scores and other factors. (You can find test scores for schools here.)
“Some of our areas in Louisville have more challenges socio-economically than others,” said Chris Brady, who represents District 7 of Jefferson County Board of Education.
Brady went through the application process for his kindergartner last year. He says when the school board decided to change its student assignment plan two years ago, it was in response to parents who wanted fewer students to be bused longer distances.
But as a result, there are now fewer schools parents can choose from.
“You’re more geographically locked or limited by where you live,” Brady said.
JCPS officials recognize disparities exist. They’re trying to target areas where parents have historically not applied for schools on time using the mobile bus unit. The targets happen to align roughly with the clusters that haven’t performed particularly well on state tests.
“They’re probably not going to come to us,” said Jonathan Lowe, the district’s director of student assignment. ”We have to reach out and find where they are and engage them where they are and that’s just tough work.”
Lowe expects the number of parents who didn’t apply during the requested application period to decrease this year—partly because of programs like the mobile bus. The district will also spend more time trying to reach these parents earlier in the process.
But Lowe said it’s the job of JCPS central administration and each school to improve parent communication.
“There are a lot of people who maybe are intimidated by central office or something like that, would feel much more comfortable having a conversation with a counselor or somebody in a school and so that engagement part happens both at the district level but also at the school level,” Lowe said.
This is something the Network Center for Community Change—or NC3—has been looking at in partnership with WFPL.
“When parents were asked if they feel informed about what’s going on at their student’s school, the majority of parents said that they do feel informed and many said that they strongly agree that they feel informed,” Poindexter said.
“A fewer number of parents say that they feel that they know what’s going on at the district level.”
‘I Do Feel a Lot of Pressure’
Knowledge of how the assignment process works benefits parents.
For example, JCPS offers ways to get out of a cluster group if parents aren’t happy with the school choices. One is to apply for as many as two magnet or traditional schools during the application period.
If you don’t apply for a magnet, you won’t receive.
Parents have another chance after getting school assignments in the spring. They can apply to transfer.
Heading into this school year, parents of 1,147 incoming kindergartners applied for a transfer after getting their child’s school assignment. Among those children, 71 percent were allowed to transfer.
But transportation can be a challenge for some parents. Except for most magnet school students, JCPS doesn’t provide buses for children who go to school outside their cluster.
That’s a potential problem for Ida Grace.
She has six children and no car. It’s more realistic for her to choose schools in her cluster area, she said.
“I am a stay at home mom so it would be very difficult for me to pack up my little ones and hop on a bus to try to find a school,” Grace said.
Grace is watching over three of her younger children—including 4-year-old Andrew, who will enter kindergarten next year. He has a speech impairment and Grace wants to be sure that his future teachers will work with him on those issues.
She wants Andrew with teachers who are engaged, active and understanding.
“He’s very energetic,” Grace said. “He focuses well as long as it’s something interesting for him to focus on, he’ll focus in on it and he’ll stay with it.”
The application period for elementary schools begins Monday, but first she’ll take Andrew to Saturday’s Showcase of Elementary Schools, she said.
“I do feel a lot of pressure.”
As we reported Thursday, JCPS officials and parents say among the best ways to find the right school for children is to go on a school tour, but that’s not really an option for a mother without a car.
She’s hoping Andrew will interact with teachers at the Showcase, which 2842 people attended last year. And Andrew’s response Saturday will help guide her choice, she said.
Regardless, she’ll likely have to choose a school in her neighborhood because of her transportation issues and her desire to have her children closer to home..
In Thursday’s story, we noted that school officials and parents argue that test scores aren’t the most important factor when choosing a school.
Still, the scores reflect schools’ performance in areas that state education officials value.
Here’s how the elementary cluster schools breakdown in percentile compared to the rest of Kentucky.
JCPS officials said the goal is for every area of Jefferson County to have great schools. But that could take some time.
Test scores, Grace said, will be important to her decision. But she’s also interested in the Foster Academy, which ranks in the bottom 1 percentile compared to the rest of Kentucky.
“I can tell the teachers there, all the way down to the principal there, really do care for the children and care and concern for the children individually, which is greatly appreciated by parents,” Grace said.
And those impressions, educators and parents said, go a long way when choosing an elementary school.
This is the final part in a series looking at elementary school choice in Jefferson County Public Schools. On Thursday, we looked at the role parent engagement plays in student assignment.