LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Growing up in west Louisville in the 1960s, Vera Langley doesn’t remember any white students at the old Brandeis Elementary on S. 26th Street, where she went to school.

“Everyone looked just like me,” said Langley, who is black and lives in the Russell neighborhood. “…At the time, that’s just the way it was.”

What disappoints Langley is that the west Louisville elementary schools her granddaughters attend today -- Roosevelt-Perry and Byck – don’t seem much different.

“I would have never thought that all these years later, their classrooms would look just like mine did,” she said. “Diversity in schools is important. I would like for them to attend a school with children who come from all sorts of backgrounds. I just don’t see that at either of their schools.”

For four decades, Jefferson County Public Schools has prided itself – and earned a national reputation – for racially integrated public schools, even in the face of the historic 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding the district from using race as the only factor in assigning students to schools.

But as the district’s student assignment plan has evolved over the last few years, a small but growing number of schools are slipping back into stark racial divisions, according to JCPS statistics reviewed by WDRB News.

The data shows that while JCPS’ total percentage of African-American elementary students has declined from 37 percent to 35 percent since the latest student assignment plan was implemented in 2012, black students have nonetheless become significantly more concentrated in a handful of mostly west Louisville elementary schools.

For example, no elementary school had a student body more than 77 percent African American during the 2011-12 year.

But now, five of the district’s elementary schools – Byck, Foster, Roosevelt-Perry, Wheatley and Maupin – are over 80 percent black.

At Byck, in the Russell neighborhood, black students account for 86 percent of the student body today, up from 64 percent in 2011-12. About a mile away at Roosevelt-Perry, the proportion of black students rose from 57 percent to 79 percent during the same time period.

They are among 10 elementary schools in JCPS where the proportion of black students has jumped at least 10 percentage points over the past four years.

That data – coupled with the fact that those same schools are also among the lowest-performing in the district, is a growing concern among some parents, school board members and the NAACP.

“We keep talking about equity, but how are you ever going to have equity if your school assignment is inequitable to begin with?” said Linda Duncan, who has represented south Louisville on the Jefferson County Board of Education since 2006.

JCPS last overhauled its student assignment plan – including changing the way it defines diversity -- for the 2012-13 academic year.

But it was a more controversial move that took effect the following year – to go from six broad clusters of elementary schools to 13, each a smaller geographic area – that community leaders like Raoul Cunningham primarily blame for the increasing black concentration at some schools.

“Does it concern us? Of course it does,” said Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP. “I don’t think now would be the appropriate time (to say), ‘I told you so,’ but that is a fact…We were fearful that those changes would produce today’s results.”

Duncan, who along with board member Diane Porter voted against increasing the elementary clusters from six to 13 in 2012, said she agrees.

“I don't think the intent of our (assignment) plan was to have concentrations of any particular groups in certain buildings, but that's exactly what we've evolved into,” she said.

Desire to shorten bus rides

The district’s elementary clusters are groups of five to eight schools within a geographic area. Parents usually have the option to send their children to any of the schools in their cluster, even if it’s not the school closest to their home. They can also apply for competitive admission to magnet schools.

The two most recent changes to the assignment plan – both of which the JCPS school board approved in early 2012 – grew out of desire to shorten the district’s bus rides and to recognize pockets of racial and socioeconomic diversity throughout Jefferson County that were undercounted in the previous plan.

“In the elementary schools, I think there is no question the way the clusters were redone has had the desired effect of reducing time on buses – and has created some concentrations of race and poverty,” said school board chairman David Jones Jr., who was not on the board when the changes were approved.

Given the “residential segregation of our county,” Jones said, JCPS’ student assignment plan still results in a “significantly more diverse school system than we otherwise would have.”

But by JCPS’ own yardstick – which considers not only students’ race but socioeconomic factors – a growing number of schools are not considered integrated.

Fifteen of the district’s 91 elementary schools now fall outside of the district’s acceptable range of diversity – up from 7 when the plan started in 2012-13, according to district data.

When assigning students to schools, JCPS does not consider the race, household income or parental education of any individual student.

Instead, the county’s more than 500 U.S. Census blocks are grouped into three categories based on a combination of those factors, and schools are supposed to have an appropriate mix of students from the three categories.

In 12 of the 15 elementary schools where the student body is not sufficiently diverse, too many of the kids come from disadvantaged areas with higher non-white populations, lower adult educational attainment and lower household income, according to the district’s data.


But three schools in Louisville’s eastern suburbs – Norton, Stopher and Hite – have the opposite issue: too many students from higher-income, predominantly white areas with higher educational attainment.

Of those, only Stopher – near the Lake Forest subdivision – was not sufficiently diverse when the new plan began.

In only four years, the percentage of black students at Hite has dropped by half – to 12 percent – while Norton’s black population has dwindled from 22 percent to 9 percent, according to district data.

District not 'hell-bent toward resegregation'

UCLA professor Gary Orfield, the school integration expert whom JCPS hired in 2011 to help design its current plan, said in an interview with WDRB last week that it’s not desirable for the district’s black students to be concentrated in handful of schools.

“They certainly aren’t what I would want to see,” he said.

But Orfield said schools like Byck, Maupin and Wheatley – and on other end of the spectrum, Norton, Stopher and Hite – are “the extremes” and reflective of “exactly the places (within Louisville) that have been regional challenges all along.”

Orfield cautioned that JCPS is nowhere near the “massive resegregation” that urban schools districts in cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis and Buffalo have experienced.

“To look the problem in a neighborhood or a sector of your district and reach the conclusion that you are going hell-bent toward resegregation” would be incorrect, Orfield said.

But two years ago, former JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman warned in an article for School Administrator, a trade publication, that the school board’s 2012 changes would “gradually resegregate the district” and concentrate poverty in certain schools.

Berman, a staunch defender of the district’s previous diversity plan, lost his job in 2011 following a disastrous start to the 2010-11 school year with hundreds of students spending extra hours on buses – some not getting home until 9 p.m. – on the first day of school.

That event prompted the school board to hire Orfield to redesign the plan – with the main of goal of reducing bus times while maintaining parents’ ability to choose schools and school diversity.

“There were several outcomes we were trying to maximize simultaneously, and as you know, it made it very, very complicated,” Orfield said.

The main reason it’s difficult to prevent west Louisville schools from becoming heavily concentrated with black students, he said, is the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision forbidding school districts from using race as a direct determinant in assigning students to schools.

That means JCPS is left with “limited tools” that can’t guarantee racial diversity in every school.

Even under the 2008 plan, which also used socioeconomic factors, 40 percent of the district’s elementary schools did not meet the diversity standards, according to Orfield’s 2011 report.

“The basic problem with any plan that doesn’t consider race directly as a decision criteria is that it is not going to be as effective as one that does,” Orfield said.

Orfield noted that while some schools in JCPS are increasingly concentrated with black students, “We are not seeing a pattern of extreme white schools emerging.”

That’s an indication that there are still “quite a significant presence” of minority students in the district’s high-achieving elementary schools, he said.

At Hite Elementary, for example, the big drop in black students over the last four years corresponded with a rise in non-white students such as Hispanics and Asians, who now make up 16 percent of the student body.

But for parents like Langley, the fact that her granddaughters' schools lack diversity and are among the lowest performing in the state is a huge concern.

At Roosevelt-Perry, only 9 percent of students are reading on grade level and 12 percent are on grade level in math; at Byck, 26 percent of students are reading on grade level and 25 percent are on grade level in math. Both are well below the district and state's averages for in both subject areas.

Two years ago, Langley says she tried to get her granddaughters into Lowe Elementary – a higher performing school located near Oxmoor Mall where 74 percent of students are proficient in reading and 72 percent are proficient in math.

“Neither of them got in,” she said. “And each year, the test scores at both of their schools have gotten worse.”

JCPS: Diversity only one factor

Asked whether schools that don’t meet the district’s diversity goals are a concern, senior JCPS administrator Dena Dossett said diversity is only one of the district’s six “guiding principles” in assigning students.

“We are concerned when schools fall outside of the diversity guideline and to the extent that we can promote that diversity guideline and place students so that schools fall within that guideline, we try to do that,” she said.

But ensuring diversity in schools often conflicts with other priorities, like accommodating parents’ choices, Dossett noted.

“In order to balance and to have schools fall within that diversity guideline, what that would mean is that we might have to limit choice, and it might impact our space within a school,” she said.

Jones, the JCPS board chairman, noted that seats in the district’s magnet and high-performing cluster schools “fill up fast,” and one of the board’s priorities is to make it easier for kids from disadvantaged families to take advantage of their options in choosing a school.

“That means choice for kids whose parents don’t speak English or kids whose parents who work inflexible or unpredictable hours,” he said.

Dossett noted that district figures show 90 percent of JCPS parents are satisfied with their child’s school.

In addition, 85 percent of students get their first choice when picking from schools within their cluster.

When it came time for her daughter Marissa to go to elementary school, Andrea Russell chose to send her to Byck, even though the west Louisville school is a good 20 minutes from her home near Iroquois Park.

“I really like Byck, and I like what the staff has done with the children, and I think my child has grown,” said Russell, who is also on the school's site-based decision making council.

But Russell, who is black, acknowledges that her loyalty to Byck has meant compromising on racial diversity, which she feels will become more important for Marissa when she gets older.

“I don’t feel like she even thinks, ‘Oh, I’m around a bunch of people that look just like me,’” Russell said. “I don’t hear her say that.”

Porter: Data will restart conversations

Nine of the 15 schools that are out of compliance with the district's diversity guidelines are in school board member Diane Porter’s west Louisville district – in each case, because the school’s population includes too many students from disadvantaged areas.

In an interview, Porter said she disagreed at the time with school board’s decision to move the smaller geographic clusters, saying the change was rushed.

But she said the growing concentration of black students in her area’s schools has not been an issue with her constituents.

“Now the question becomes, what are the next steps for the board as we look at the current cluster arrangement – what conversations do we need to have about it?” she said. “The first thing we need to do is put the data out on the table.”

Orfield said the school board could look at redoing the geographic clusters once again, but that would be “very complicated and politically difficult.”

For the west Louisville schools are that increasingly concentrated with black students, Orfield said the key is to entice more students from other areas to choose those schools.

“This is a case where trying to make these particular schools more attractive and magnetic is one of the only tools the school district has,” he said.


Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

You can reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822 and reporter Toni Konz at 502-585-0838.