The Jefferson County Board of Education is months away from a momentous vote: whether or not to approve a new student assignment plan. The proposal would change which schools students can attend. The changes mostly impact students in the West End and downtown areas.
The plan, originally unveiled in 2019, would provide more resources and options for students to go to school in Louisville’s majority-Black West End. But it also threatens to undo the district’s nationally-recognized efforts at racial and economic integration.
Some Black parents and community members are worried the plan will lead the district backwards into segregation.
A history lesson
Since the 1970s, students in Louisville’s majority-Black West End and downtown areas have been bused to schools in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods to the east and south. It’s how Jefferson County Public Schools has achieved a relatively high level of racial and economic integration in a city where housing is highly segregated.
Originally, busing went both ways: the district sent students from the majority-white East End and South End to the west, and students from the majority-Black West End to the east and south. But in 1984, facing pressure from white families, the district ended mandatory busing for the East and South Ends. That mandatory busing continued, however, for the West End, so that the district could maintain its commitment to integration.
Research shows integration has had many positive impacts on Black children in JCPS: higher graduation rates, higher college attendance rates, higher incomes and even better health outcomes.
But the policy is not without drawbacks. Many West End families say it’s unfair that they have to leave their neighborhoods, while white East End and South End families get to attend schools a short drive or even a short walk away. Since the movement of students away from the West End the area has seen under-enrollment and less investment: fewer schools, lack of resources and crumbling facilities.
It’s that longstanding criticism that prompted JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio to offer a new plan that would invest in the West End and allow West End students to attend elementary, middle and high school closer to home for the first time in decades.
Funds ‘like we’ve never had before’
Under the proposal, the West End and downtown areas would be labeled the “choice zone,” where students would have at least two guaranteed choices. One would be a school in the East or South End. The second, new choice would be a West End school, closer to home.
“Black students here in west Louisville deserve the same choice as students in Middletown J-Town, Fern Creek and Valley Station,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said, presenting the plan at a public forum at the Academy @ Shawnee last month. “Since 1984, every single student and family in Jefferson County has had choice to go to a school close to their home, with the exception of students in the area in which we sit.”
Students in the choice zone would have a guaranteed spot at the Academy @ Shawnee for high school. For middle school, they would have a spot at a yet-to-be built middle school somewhere in the West End. They would also keep the same guaranteed spots they’ve had since the 1980s at a middle and a high school in the East End or South End. The district calls this policy “dual resides.”
For elementary school, the plan reorganizes the “clusters” of schools students have access to. Students in the choice zone would continue to have elementary schools in the East and South Ends to choose from in their cluster. The proposal adds several more West End options as well.
Officials acknowledge the plan will make the district more segregated. But they say they’ll give extra resources to the majority-Black and low-income schools in the West End: smaller class sizes, new facilities and extra personnel.
“A new support plan that would put funds into these schools like we’ve never had before,” Pollio said.
During the forum, officials pointed to the more than $40 million in improvements made already in the Academy @ Shawnee.
‘I’m just here to tell everybody to be careful’
After Pollio and other district officials finished their presentations, the lobby of the Academy @ Shawnee was abuzz with district officials in suits and lanyards talking up the plan to the less-than-30-person audience who came to hear about the proposal.
Eighty-five-year-old West End resident Amandia Eddings wove her way through the crowd, looking for Pollio. She wanted to tell him how worried she was.
“I’m just here to tell everybody to be careful, that we don’t go back and resegregate JCPS,” Eddings said. “Because I’ve seen the same thing happen over and over.”
Eddings, who is Black, grew up in the South and went to segregated schools. She said this moment feels eerily familiar to the 1950s and 1960s after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate. After Brown v. Board of Education, Eddings said her school district in North Carolina made big investments in majority-Black schools, and even built new ones in majority Black-areas.
“Just like they’re doing at Shawnee—fixing up things, and getting us better this, and getting us better that—so that we wouldn’t be going to their [white] schools,” she said.
Those improvements didn’t always last and funding disparities persisted between majority-Black and majority-white schools.
Eddings had moved to Louisville’s West End by the time JCPS began court-ordered integration in the 1970s. She said her children benefited from the busing policy.
“Although our students have to do most of the busing, way out you know, I thought it was better than … to be segregated down here with secondhand books, and secondhand this and secondhand that,” she said.
“I just want some kind of assurance that we’re not going back where we came from.”
‘Show me that you can really make this work’
JCPS parent Carla Robinson can see the roof of the Academy @ Shawnee from her front porch. But even though the student assignment proposal would guarantee her children a spot at this walking-distance school, Robinson doesn’t plan to send them there.
She’s worried the student assignment plan won’t ensure adequate resources for schools like the Academy @ Shawnee and other West End schools.
“We’re putting a whole lot of hope and prayer on things that aren’t even here yet,” she said. “The middle school—we don’t have it yet. We don’t even know where it’s going to be built.”
Robinson says JCPS has broken promises before in the West End, something that’s impacted her personally.
The district made her kids’ elementary school, Maupin Elementary, a Waldorf-style school, where arts and music are woven into curriculum. But after just two years, JCPS terminated the program, citing issues with low test scores, challenges with student behavior and a negative report from the Kentucky Department of Education. At the time, parents and staff told the Courier Journal the program failed because of a lack of support from the district and poor implementation.
Stories like that make Robinson wary of JCPS’s new promises and the student assignment plan altogether.
“Show me that you can really make this work, and then I may have some faith in you,” Robinson said. “But what I can’t continue to do is have faith in you in things that I haven’t seen you do before.”
Pollio said he plans to bring the proposal to the Jefferson County Board of Education for a vote by June.
The district is holding more public forums on the plan 6 p.m. Wednesday at Ballard High School and 6 p.m. Thursday at Marion C. Moore School.
Here is a link with more details from JCPS about the proposal and an online survey for collecting feedback.
For more reporting on what the student assignment proposal may mean for JCPS’ legacy of integration efforts, check out our five-part series, released in 2020.