Future of JCPS up in the air as district awaits results of a state audit

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Navigating the maze of Jefferson County Public Schools’ student assignment plan can be daunting for newcomers.

It’s a lesson Lorelei Schweickert and her 13-year-old daughter, Nixie, are learning as they prepare to apply for Nixie’s high school.

She’s settled on trying to get into Atherton for its international baccalaureate program. She initially zeroed in on duPont Manual as her first choice, but visits to both schools changed her mind.

 “It just seems like the school that I’m fit for because I really like the arts and it gives you a lot of opportunities for that,” said Nixie, who also hopes to be part of Atherton’s theater program.

If that falls through, Nixie and her mother say they’re comfortable going to Ballard, which is her “resides” school under the current boundary maps.

Nixie is in eighth grade at Kammerer, but this is her first time applying for schools through the district’s student assignment plan after coming to JCPS from private school. Schweikert said her daughter didn’t apply for any programs, instead opting for her resides middle school of Kammerer.

The ease of that decision didn’t carry over when Nixie starting exploring her options as an incoming freshman. “It was not as easy we thought,” Schweickert said. “There are a lot of components.”

But relief may be on the way.

The district gathered feedback on the student assignment plan at four listening sessions in November and has an online survey available through Dec. 21 to get more input on what people like about the way kids are assigned to schools and what they think should be changed.

The push comes as JCPS prepares to make changes to the plan under an agreement with the state in time for the 2020-21 school year. JCPS also reviews the plan every five to seven years for possible revisions.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to have a proposal for its next year.

“I think one of our priorities will be once we determine a plan and if there are changes is to inform families as soon as possible if it will impact their family and how,” said Barbara Dempsey, the district’s student assignment director. “But it’s too early to know when that will be right now.”

For now, parents and students have until Dec. 19 to file their assignment applications with JCPS, and the district is ready to help applicants with any questions or concerns about the process.

Some of the most frequent questions Dempsey fields from parents include what schools and programs are available for their kids and which ones will be the best fits for their needs.

 How are kids assigned

Dempsey says the student assignment process at the middle- and high-school levels is relatively straightforward: unless kids want to apply to magnet schools or another school outside their “resides” area, they’ll attend the school closest to home.

But for parents with kids entering elementary school, the process is a bit more complex. Parents must rank the schools in their specific cluster – a geographic region that can include up to seven schools – based on preference in their applications.

Dempsey says the district has a tool that allows parents to see the chances of their kids getting into specific cluster schools.

Parents also have the option to automatically enroll their children in schools their older siblings already attend, Dempsey said.

If there’s enough space at a school for everyone who applied, “everything’s great,” Dempsey said.

But if the number of applicants exceeds a school’s capacity, other factors come into play, such as who lives within a particular school’s boundary and when applications were received, she said.

“The earlier you apply the better in terms of being able for us to accommodate your preferences,” Dempsey said.

She said most schools have more applicants than they have capacity for every year.

Magnet programs are slightly trickier since their admission requirements vary, Dempsey said. A couple of years ago, Magnet Schools of America recommended that JCPS re-examine its admission standards for magnet programs, she said.

“That might be another piece of this review,” Dempsey said. “We just haven’t gotten there yet to determine how magnet admissions may or may not impact the student assignment plan.”

Changes on the horizon

At the first listening session at Southern High School, parents who spoke with WDRB News offered a number of suggestions to improve student assignment at JCPS.

But the most prevalent suggestion: Make the process easier to understand.

“I think one of the consistent concerns we’ve heard over the years is that parents want a system that’s easy to navigate, that’s manageable to understand,” Dempsey said. “So we’ve got to work on an ease of understanding, and that’s challenging because we also know that parents want choice, so every time you add choice, it adds a level of complexity.”

“How do you find that good balance between the two?” she added. “I think that’s a place where we could probably make some improvements.”

That’s a point echoed by Schweickert and her daughter Nixie. They both suggested starting open houses earlier in the process so kids can have time to explore different schools and programs to find their best fits.

“I think the whole assignment plan that’s been in place for 40 years or 50 years or whatever it is, it’s time to rethink it and rework it and bring it into the 21st century,” Schweickert said.

Whatever plan emerges for the district’s student assignment plan, don’t expect to see JCPS scrap its efforts to promote diversity in its schools.

That includes busing students throughout Jefferson County, an aspect of the student assignment plan that sparked an unsuccessful effort in Kentucky’s General Assembly in 2017 to allow parents to send their children to schools closest to their homes, otherwise known as the neighborhood schools bill.

The legislation would have gutted the district’s student assignment plan, with many saying such a measure would not be feasible given the demographics and the locations of schools locally.

Dempsey said previous revisions to student assignment in 2013 were adopted specifically to cut the amount of time students spent on buses.

JCPS says the average ride times for elementary students are 23 minutes on direct routes and 46 minutes on routes that include depot stops. For students in middle and high schools, those ride times are 25 minutes and 53 minutes, respectively.

Dempsey said those averages are “much lower than in other districts” in Kentucky. She noted that some are willing to travel “quite a distance” to attend the schools or magnet programs of their choice.

“We are always looking for ways to become more efficient and provide better service and products for our families, but that’s always a balance,” she said. “When we don’t have diverse housing patterns, it’s really hard to say we would never ask people to travel a distance.”

For now, JCPS students like Nixie and her mother must wait until after spring break next year to find out whether her hopes of attending Atherton will become reality.

“Fingers crossed, we'll end up there,” Schweickert said. “If she doesn't, it kind of is what it is. That's the position we're in at JCPS.”

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

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