Education

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) has reached 99% of its projected enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year, mollifying fears that enrollment would drop as schools struggled to reach students in an all-virtual environment.

“We have enrolled 99% of our projected enrollment, meaning kids are in classes at schools,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Pollio said prior to COVID-19, the district’s projected enrollment was 93,279. As of Friday, the district had enrolled 92,318 students.

“I was deeply concerned over the past four or five weeks that we may only have 80,000 or 85,000 students, and that is not the way it has turned out,” he said.

There are still 961 students the district planned to enroll, but has not. Pollio said the vast majority of those unfilled spots — 745 — were in kindergarten.

“I believe many of these families have decided or chosen to wait a year to enter into kindergarten, so it’s very likely we could see an increase in kindergarten at this time next year,” he said.

Enrollment in grades 1-5 is down 202 students, and in middle school enrollment is down 81 students. High school enrollment is 214 students higher than predicted.

Assistant Superintendent of Climate and Culture Katy DeFerrari said the district has reached 300 of the 481 students who were not participating in remote instruction in the spring.

“We’ve been working since last spring through the summer in coordination with schools, of course, and their attendance team staff, to locate these kiddos and help make sure they’re connected to virtual learning experiences,” DeFerrari said.

She said there are “various challenges” in finding the remaining 178, including “a lot of mobility” among families due to the pressures of the pandemic.

Staff did not provide data on daily participation rates — which is a stand-in for attendance in this virtual learning environment. District spokeswoman Renee Murphy said the information “hasn’t been finalized yet,” and won’t be available until the end of next week.

More Tech Changes

JCPS staff have distributed 60,000 Chromebooks and 7,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to families to bridge the digital divide. In addition to hardware, the district has also had to purchase computer software.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members approved a $7.9 million contract for a new learning platform, Savvas Realize, one week into the school year. Staff said the platform will be integrated into other platforms teachers are already using, such as Infinite Campus. Nearly $5 million of the cost is covered through federal CARES Act funding.

Board member Chris Brady had questions about why it took so long for the district to get the technology in place, noting it was being approved after the start of school.

“We didn’t really know that we were going to be looking for a full curriculum,” Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman responded. She said staff didn’t realize until later in the summer that the district would want to offer all the features Savvas has, including a full curriculum matching Kentucky’s academic standards.

Pollio said using Savvas is optional for teachers.

“They have plenty of time to implement this,” Pollio said. “This is not something that is just being dropped on them.”

Teachers have already been grappling with technology changes. Just three days into the school year, the district announced it would shift from offering live instruction through Google Meet to using Microsoft Teams. The change was prompted by security concerns with Google Meet. Students disrupted classes on the first day of school by entering online classes and playing explicit music, or other inappropriate material.

Chief Technology Officer Kermit Belcher said Microsoft Teams is more secure because it requires teachers to admit students from a virtual waiting room. In Google Meet, any student with a link could join any class. He said Microsoft will be releasing an option for teachers to be able to turn the chat feature on and off, but did not have an estimated timeline.

Board member Chris Kolb said he wanted district staff to start planning for reopening for in-person classes, “recognizing that, as it is, it may very well be the case that we have to stay in NTI past the six week period.” JCPS’ plan is to remain in nontraditional instruction (NTI) for at least the first six weeks of the school year.

Kolb suggested that the district could bring younger students in before older students.

Pollio said the pandemic response team is still meeting to plan for a return to school, and will present a plan at the September 15 board meeting. He said superintendents were pushing for “clear data metrics” for determining when to return to in-person classes, and anticipated having those metrics before the next meeting.

Kentucky superintendents have expressed frustration with state leaders for sending “mixed messages” about reopening decisions.

Racial Equity Update

Staff presented an update Tuesday on the progress JCPS has made on its Racial Equity Plan, approved in 2019. The district has made gains on hiring more leaders of color and training teachers in cultural competency. But major problems remain when it comes to suspension rates and test scores.

The district is hiring more Black principals and losing fewer teachers of color. A particular bright spot for the district is its attrition rate for teachers of color. Turnover for teachers of color fell from 16% in 2018-2019 to 7% in 2019-2020.

But there are still challenges.

“Some of the main reasons given for leaving are around cultural support,” JCPS Chief of Human Resources Jimmy Adams said.

The district is also working to increase the pipeline of teachers and administrators of color they employ through teacher residency programs at the University of Louisville, Spalding University and Simmons College.

Would-be principals are now screened for cultural competency and a commitment to racial equity.

“We are now saying that if you want to be the next principal….you have to have shown merit and evidence that you’re about racial equity in your current station,” Chief Diversity Officer John Marshall said.

Each school administrator and teacher is required to meet a “racial equity goal” this school year.

“We understand what gets measured gets moved,” Marshall said.

An example of a racial equity goals for administrators would be to increase the percentage of Black and brown students in student-led extracurricular activities, Marshall said.

Marshall said 7,000 JCPS employees have now completed online implicit bias training. Each middle and high school has a Black student union. And the district has been developing curriculum centered on the Black experience.

The district has also made progress in giving contracts to more women- and minority-owned businesses. Marshall said they’ve met the goal of 15% of contracts being awarded to such businesses at The Academy @ Shawnee and Iroquois High School.

But problems remain when it comes to discipline rates and the gap in test scores.

Black students were nearly three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in the 2019-2020 school year, before schools closed due to the pandemic. Coleman said that disparity is reflected in student test scores.

“We know these things go hand-in-hand,” she said.You can’t learn when you’re not there.”

Winter test scores showed a 31-point gap in proficiency rates between Black and white students in reading and math, Coleman said.

Additionally, students of color, especially Black high school girls, still report feeling a lower sense of belonging than their white peers. Marshall said a survey shows just 62% of Black high school girls feel a sense of belonging at school, a statistic that concerned board chair Diane Porter,

“If you feel like you’re belonging, you probably will do better and do more,” she said.

Marshall also said each school is in the process of evaluating its mascot to make sure it isn’t racist or otherwise problematic. Board member Corrie Shull wanted to know if schools would be evaluating their names as well, specifically Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Thomas Jefferson owned enslaved Black people, and his writings show he held racist beliefs.

Pollio said school names are “next,” after the mascots.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.