Gilmore Lane Elementary parents protest JCPS facilities plan outside weekly board meeting

Parents and students protest against plans to close Gilmore Lane Elementary after the 2018-19 school year before the Feb. 12, 2019, Jefferson County Board of Education meeting.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Erin Zimmerman lives so close to Gilmore Lane Elementary that she could spy on her oldest son with binoculars when he played on the school’s playground as a kindergartener.

“I love the convenience for me,” said Zimmerman, president of Gilmore Lane’s parent-teacher association. “Just being right behind the school, I can walk if they need anything. I can be there. I’m there all the time anyway, but other schools I might not be able to.”

But if a facilities plan proposed by Jefferson County Public Schools is approved and Gilmore Lane shutters at the end of the year as the first domino to fall in a sequence of closures, moves and openings, Zimmerman’s two other children will continue their academic careers somewhere else until a new school is built at Indian Trail Elementary.

“It is extremely stressful, everything that’s going on,” she said. “I know of children at the school that are losing sleep, are stressed about it.”

The Jefferson County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the facilities plan during a work session Tuesday and may vote on it at the March 12 board meeting. 

Zimmerman is not the only person concerned about the facility plan’s potential impact in neighborhoods across Jefferson County.

In places where schools are slated to close completely, some are distraught at the prospect of losing an important piece of their communities. On a plan to combine high schoolers in alternative schools under one roof, a teacher has repeatedly raised concerns that such a move may imperil school staff and students.

But JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio believes the plan and the new schools and renovations that will come as a result, if approved by the school board, are long overdue for the district.

In fact, Pollio started his JCPS career in 1997 teaching at a school slated for major renovations. The facilities plan calls for a two-year, $40 million renovation at the Academy @ Shawnee that would open the building’s third floor for the first time in decades.

“I found that to be crazy, quite frankly,” Pollio said. “Here I am teaching in a building that has a third floor that was condemned.”

That empty space offers a number of possibilities to expand academic offerings at Shawnee, one of the first schools in the district’s Academies of Louisville program and one of the lowest performing high schools in JCPS.

“I can’t wait to cut the ribbon on that third floor of Shawnee,” he said.

The proposal calls for opening three new elementary schools by combining schools that have low enrollments. Gilmore Lane and Indian Trail Elementary would join at a new location on Indian Trail’s campus; Wheatley Elementary and Roosevelt-Coleman Elementary would combine at a new school near a new Y facility in west Louisville; and Watson Lane Elementary and Wilkerson Elementary would merge in a new school on Wilkerson’s campus. Gilmore Lane would be the only school slated to close at the end of this school year.

A new middle school is also included in hopes of easing overcrowding in eastern Jefferson County. The new schools and renovations at Shawnee are expected to cost the district $140 million, which will be paid through bonds, according to JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy.

School mergers will open new locations for other schools. Breckinridge Metropolitan High and Minor Daniels Academy’s high school students would move to Liberty High, which in turn would relocate to Gilmore Lane. Middle schoolers in alternative programs would be moved to Minor Daniels, and the W.E.B. DuBois Academy would start classes at Breckinridge Metro.

Pollio believes that investing in new and renovated schools can help boost academic performance for those who attend them. Having a new building with new equipment will help instill a sense of pride in their school and their education, he said.

“A building and a facility is not the only thing that matters in student learning, but research is clear that it’s very impactful,” he said. “When kids walk into a new or newly renovated school, student achievement is positively impacted.”

But not everyone is convinced that the new facilities plan is the right path forward.

Security at alternative high school

Kumar Rashad, a math teacher at Breckinridge Metro, fears that staff and students will be vulnerable in an alternative school for all high schoolers in JCPS. With two locations, Rashad said students who have had problems with each other can be separated.

In a merged school at Liberty High, though, Rashad expects violence will be more likely and staff will be at greater risk while trying to break up fights. Combining two of the most vulnerable student populations in JCPS is “toxic,” he said.

If a group of students in the new alternative high school want to hurt another student, Rashad doesn’t see how that can be avoided without stringent security protocols in place.

“Our students are going to band together, and they’re going to probably just rush through a checkpoint to get whoever they want to get,” Rashad said. “I don’t see one person standing in the hallway stopping them.”

The anticipated likelihood of violence is something his students have even pointed out, he said.

“The conversation goes, ‘Mr. Rashad, are they trying to combine Breckinridge with Minor Daniels?’” Rashad said. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, that is the plan right now, the suggestion.’ The response is normally, ‘Don’t they know we’re going to be fighting every day?’”

Board member Corrie Shull, whose district includes Breckinridge Metro and Liberty High, said safety for students and staff at the new alternative school is one of his biggest concerns.

He also wants to see alternative programs improve outcomes for students who have gone astray, something he said won’t be achieved by simply “merging for the sake of merging.”

“Many of those young men and women are dependent on that environment to help redirect their course in life, and if we get alternative schools wrong, it’s bad for our city, it’s bad for the future of the workforce in Jefferson County,” Shull said.

That’s a point Pollio stressed when asked about security concerns at the consolidated alternative high school. Providing better support services, such as access to services like mental health counseling, and a more robust offering of career and technical classes for alternative-school students will be part of the district’s efforts to turn around the lives of at-risk youth, he said.

“We clearly have to focus on security, and we will do that and make sure that staff and students feel safe,” Pollio said. “… But without a doubt, I can’t say this enough, if we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to get the same outcomes that we have.”

‘Going to kill this neighborhood’

At a recent meeting at Watson Lane Elementary, school and district officials had few details to share about the possible merger between Watson Lane and Wilkerson Elementary.

That frustrated some members of the Valley Village Homeowners Association, one of whom immediately got up and left.

Mark Lynch, vice president of the homeowners association’s board, feared that the vacant school could lower surrounding property values and what would happen with the building itself.

“This school has been a staple in this community for roughly 60 years, and we just hate to see it go because once it goes, it’s going to kill this neighborhood,” Lynch said.

“It’s the only thriving thing we have in this area,” he said. “All the kids come here. They have activities here, and there’s nothing else out in this area for kids to do.”

Lynch’s concern about the school closure’s impact on his community was shared by others who face similar circumstances in the facilities plan.

Yolanda Walker, president of California Neighborhood Leadership Council Inc., said closing Wheatley Elementary, on South 17th Street, would deal a significant blow to her west Louisville community.

She questioned why Wheatley couldn’t be renovated and expanded as part of the facilities plan and said if low enrollment is a reason the school is on the chopping block, JCPS could stop bussing elementary-school students as part of its student assignment plan. That, she said, would lead to more west Louisville students in Wheatley’s halls and classrooms.

“You’ve got little children, 5- and 6-year-olds being bussed across town because they can’t get in the school that’s across from their street,” Walker said.

She also worried that Wheatley’s closure could allow a historic black figure’s prominence to fade. The school is named after Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to become a published poet.

But Diane Porter, the school board chairwoman whose district includes Wheatley and Roosevelt-Perry, said the new school’s name would reflect the heritage and history of both buildings. To do that, Porter said she would push for both “Wheatley” and “Perry” in the new school’s name.

“I think it’s absolutely fair,” Porter said. “We’re not trying to create XYZ school. We’ve got people who are very aligned with those two names.”

“The board will have to decide what the school is going to be named, but I don’t want folks to think that we’re not listening,” she added.

Walker, however, contends that the board and district could have done more to spread word about the facilities plan. She says she runs into people in the neighborhood often who are unaware that Wheatley could close.

What’s more, she says the decision to close Wheatley and merge with Roosevelt-Perry students is “bigger than just a name.”

Zimmerman, the Gilmore Lane PTA president, said she would support the facilities proposal if Gilmore Lane was not scheduled for closure at the end of this school year. She noted that the district’s plans weren’t known until after the school application deadline expired Dec. 19, so parents who expected their kids to attend Gilmore Lane next year will now have little, if any, say in which school their children attend.

“I think they're just looking at the broader picture about how it's going to affect all of JCPS, and I understand that because that's their job,” she said. “But they have to also look at how one school is being singled out to close before all these other schools. That's the part that's not fair.”

Another issue is that Gilmore Lane is home to a memorial honoring two brothers, Aairden and Avery Hooper, who were killed by their mother in 2017. A playground near the memorial was donated to the Lynnview community in their memory, Zimmerman said.

“Really it’s not just the school,” she said. “It’s a community.”

Shull said delaying Gilmore Lane’s closure for a year is “possible,” but he noted that the school is just one piece of a plan that includes several moving parts to work.

“I’m not sure how Gilmore Lane parents and students can be accommodated and what that means for other schools like the DuBois school that need space,” Shull said.

The first-year school board member says he’s unsure how he’ll vote on the facilities plan.

“I’m not anchored in on an answer yet because I guess I’m anticipating changes to be made,” he said. “I’m still listening.”

In Porter’s view, the district’s focus on facilities is overdue for District 1.

“We haven’t voted on it yet, so I don’t want people to think that we’re there yet,” she said. “… But I think it’s more than time that some of this is taken care of.”

There’s always a chance that some aspects of the proposal change between now and when it comes to the board for a vote, but Pollio said he believed the plan represents the best path forward for new and renovated JCPS schools.

“I can’t say that anything is 100 percent done until we get there, but I’m very confident at this point that we’re presenting a difficult but necessary step for our district to move forward,” he said.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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