In a unanimous vote Wednesday night, the Jefferson County Board of Education decided to overhaul its student assignment plan, a decision that hails the end of a nationally-recognized system that sought to keep Jefferson County Public Schools integrated for nearly 40 years.

District leaders say the new system will allow students living in the majority-Black West End the opportunity to attend school closer to home for the first time in generations, starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

“This will have the most positive impact on students of anything we’ve done in this district in decades,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told the board. “And this is the most important vote that this board has taken in decades.”

Pollio calls himself a “longtime complainer” regarding the current student assignment plan, which assigns most students in the West End and downtown areas to schools in whiter, wealthier suburbs. The setup allows JCPS to maintain a level of racial and economic integration — something decades of research shows has positive impacts on Black student outcomes.

But some say the arrangement is unfair to Black students. Pollio agrees. He pointed to his experience as a principal at Doss High School in southwest Louisville, where he said the long bus rides worsened absenteeism, limited opportunities for after-school activities and made students feel disconnected from their school communities.

“I knew something wasn’t right when kids were coming to us and had no sense of belonging at the school…or missed the bus at 6:15 in the morning and couldn’t get to Doss High School,” Pollio said.

The plan the board approved Wednesday dubs the West End and downtown areas the “choice zone.” Students who live in the choice zone will be allowed to choose between traveling across the city to attend schools that might be more diverse, or attending school closer to their own neighborhoods.

Equity vs. segregation

Supporters of the plan say its goal is racial equity: giving Black children the same chance to attend a close-to-home school that most white children in Louisville already have.

But the new structure also threatens to undermine the district’s legacy of racial and economic integration, a concern expressed by numerous speakers during Wednesday’s public comment period, even as they cautiously supported the proposal.

“You are poised to enact and approve a plan that represents a dramatic reversal of your past principles and policies,” Louisville NAACP president Raoul Cunningham said.

“We do not want to see the creation of more high-poverty schools. This is and has been a recipe for disaster for educators and students,” Louisville Urban League spokesperson Lyndon Pryor said.

Still, both the NAACP and the Louisville Urban League agreed to support the plan, along with the Coalition of Retired Black Principals and Administrators and the League of Women Voters.

Cunningham said JCPS officials agreed to a number of conditions that allowed his group to feel more comfortable backing the choice zone system.

“It was a dilemma,” Cunningham said. “Not only for the organization, but was [also] personal dilemmas, because we’ve all been involved and working for an integrated system, we still believe in an integrated system, and we will still work for one.”

The NAACP was involved in the 1975 desegregation case that led to the merging of the county and city school systems and created JCPS.

Cunningham said the district agreed to a number of conditions for choice zone schools in order to garner the support of Black leaders, including:

  • Offering pay $8,000 to $14,000 higher for teachers and administrators
  • Allowing choice zone schools to hire staff before all other JCPS schools
  • Setting class sizes at 20
  • Upgrading athletic facilities for Western High School and The Academy @ Shawnee
  • Agreeing to create the next performing arts magnet school in west Louisville
  • Providing $12 million a year in additional financial support to choice zone schools for the next decade
  • Using a third party to monitor financial and academic outcomes and reporting findings to the community
  • Giving principals autonomy in how they run their schools
  • Assigning choice zone principals a retired principal as a mentor

Cunningham also said JCPS must “accept that it has a major trust problem,” when it comes to following through on promises to the Black community. That mistrust was something District 6 board member Corrie Shull alluded to when casting his yes vote.

“Today can be a new beginning for JCPS, it can be a new beginning for Black children, and it can be a new beginning to rebuild trust,” Shull said. “Implementation is what matters.”

The late-in-the-game changes also won over District 1 member Diane Porter, who represents most parts of the choice zone.

Porter, who is Black and attended and worked in segregated schools, has long expressed concern over the ways the new plan will segregate schools in her district. But on Wednesday she gave her support.

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up,” Porter said as she cast her vote, quoting the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

Missing puzzle pieces

In expressing their wary support, many community leaders pointed to potential gaps in the plan’s implementation.

“It is imperative that we highlight the pieces of the puzzle that are incomplete without buy-in from all,” Ramzi Sabree told the board, speaking on behalf of the Louisville Urban League.

For one, Sabree said, the Jefferson County Teachers Association has not yet agreed to change its collective bargaining agreement to allow for choice zone teachers to get higher pay. JCTA president Brent McKim confirmed negotiations are still ongoing.

Many community and district leaders see the higher pay for staff as a major key to success in the choice zone. The district is already struggling to hire enough teachers, and sees extra pay as the main tool for attracting and retaining educators to work in the high-needs schools the plan creates.

Pollio said the union negotiations are “going well,” and he hopes to have a proposed contract to the board next Tuesday.

Another concern for some is how well families residing in the choice zone understand the plan, and what their options will be.

“All parents do not understand this plan,” Porter said. “There is much work to do.”

Pollio also acknowledged that making sure choice zone families understand their options will be key if the plan is to offer true choice.

Another loose end is the new West End middle school JCPS has committed to build under the new plan. Pollio said after the meeting that staff are still trying to find a site, but are having difficulty finding a location with enough space that is not on contaminated land. Much of the West End has been contaminated by industry.

Changes over time

Most of the changes will go into effect in the fall of 2023. The first students to have an opportunity to attend a choice zone school will be students entering kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade at that time.

But the district’s magnet programs, however, will implement many changes this fall. That’s when the district will stop allowing magnet schools to “exit” students, or expel them from the magnet school. It’s a practice which is disproportionately used against Black and low-income students.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.