JCPS racial equity policy approved after head of teachers' union called 'impediment' to black student achievement

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Jefferson County Board of Education approved its first racial equity policy on Tuesday in hopes of addressing racial disparities and closing achievement gaps at the local school district.

The policy was supported by several in the audience who spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP branch, said minorities and underprivileged students have long received “lesser educational opportunities leading to lesser opportunities for success in their personal and professional lives.” His hope, he said, is to see that reversed as the new policy is implemented.

“Acknowledging the issue is a monumental step, especially since it is a step that you the board initiated and will adopt without the encouragement or direction of a managerial audit by the state,” Cunningham said, referring to the Kentucky Department of Education’s audit of Jefferson County Public Schools that ultimately yielded a recommendation to takeover the state’s largest school district.

But not everyone praised the board’s new policy. In fact, Jerry Stephenson, a member of the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition that called for state management at JCPS, blamed the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson County Teachers Association for academic inequities at JCPS.

“Equity is already part of the equation,” Stephenson told reporters after he addressed the school board. “Why do we need a policy?”

He also called JCTA a racist institution and accused Brent McKim, the group’s president, of being racist.

“I just told you I did,” Stephenson said when asked whether he referred to McKim as a racist. “I think Brent McKim has been one of the biggest impediments to the academic achievement of African-American children.”

McKim, who said he has spoken with Stephenson in the past, called the pastor’s comments “ridiculous” and “very troubling.”

“We do diversity trainings for our members that are nationally recognized,” he told reporters. “We just spoke this evening in support of the equity policy. We’re absolutely committed to racial and social justice in our community and have been throughout our entire 50 years of existing, and so I’m proud of our record of human civil rights.”

Diane Porter, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, declined to comment on Stephenson’s comments regarding McKim and JCTA.

McKim was among those who spoke in favor of the new board policy, which will require JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to draft a racial equity plan, which will be up for review and renewal every three years, for the board’s approval.

An 11-member Racial Equity Advisory Council – picked by a selection committee of a teacher, two students, two parents, an administrator, a classified staff member and two community members – would be created to help draft and monitor plans  as they’re implemented for the district and individual schools.

The advisory council will be made up mostly by those not employed by the district and include student, parent, teacher, community, administrative and classified staff representation. Members will include those who have shown a commitment to racial educational equity, come from various geographic areas of JCPS and represent the racial and ethnic composition of the district as much as possible.

The plan will cover strategies that improve academic achievement for all students while reducing gaps between white and minority students; eliminate or change school policies that promote racial disparities in educational opportunities; hire a more diverse JCPS staff; improve culture and climate at all JCPS schools; establish high academic expectations while also providing personalized and systemic support for students and teachers; and improve training for district staff.

Porter called Tuesday’s action on the racial equity policy “historic.”

“Before we got this point in talking to people in the community, they are amazed that it has taken us a while to get here, but I think we are proud of the fact that this board unanimously approved this policy,” she said. “… We’re looking forward to what’s going to happen. There’s more to come.”

Pollio said the district will begin work on implementing the new racial equity policy immediately, which includes starting the advisory board’s selection process and examining data from individual JCPS schools.

A former teacher and principal at JCPS, Pollio said he recognizes “distinct challenges” that need to be tackled. Some of those are long-term issues like closing the achievement gap in test scores between white and black students, but others can be handled sooner rather than later, he said.

Some of the latter options include analyzing district data, improving training for employees and start looking at things like how JCPS identifies students for gifted and talented programs and advanced courses.

“We can make movement immediately with it,” Pollio said.

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

Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

Education Reporter