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What to know ahead of the JCPS student assignment forum

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After years of delay due to the pandemic, Jefferson County Public Schools is resuscitating a proposal to overhaul its student assignment plan.

For decades, the district has assigned students from the West End, whose residents are predominantly Black and low-income, to schools in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. The goal is achieving racial and socioeconomic integration. A new proposal would allow West End students to choose a middle or high school close to home, for the first time since the 1970s.

Officials say they aim to bring the proposal to the Jefferson County Board of Education for a vote by June.

There will be a public forum Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Academy @ Shawnee. Here’s what you need to know ahead of time:

What are ‘dual resides’?

The key feature of the student assignment proposal is the creation of what the district is calling “dual resides.” Students in a swath of town that includes the West End, downtown, Old Louisville, Shelby Park, Smoketown and parts of South Louisville and the Highlands, would have two guaranteed choices for middle and high school. They could attend middle and high school in the far-flung whiter, wealthier neighborhoods where they have been assigned since the 1980s — or they can choose to attend the Academy @ Shawnee for high school and a new West End middle school. The district has yet to find a site for this proposed new school.

JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said the proposal would make the district more racially equitable by giving Black families the same opportunities to attend school close to home as their white peers.

Some Black leaders in the West End have blasted the current student assignment plan as “one-way busing,” and say it unfairly puts the burden of integration on Black and low-income families.

However, critics of the new proposal worry about the increased segregation it will certainly bring to JCPS schools.

The latest proposed dual resides for middle and high school looks nearly identical to the proposal offered in 2020, but the current proposal also includes changes to which elementary schools families have access to based on their address. More on that below.

Magnet changes

The new proposal includes several overhauls of the district’s magnet schools, which officials say are designed to make magnet programs more equitable.

As reported in the Courier Journal’s 2021 Magnetic Pull series, JCPS magnet schools have faced criticism for excluding low-income students and students of color, and for failing to follow best practices recommended for equitable magnet schools.

The proposed plan would prevent magnet schools from kicking students by ending a practice known as “school-initiated exits.” The proposal also calls for centralizing the lotteries at the district level for schools, like duPont Manual High School, that have more applications each year than they do available spots.

The plan also calls for creating “diversity targets” for magnet schools, and setting a clearer district policy around the purpose of magnet schools and procedures that govern them.

Feeder schools

Perhaps the most significant change compared to the 2020 proposal is the inclusion of elementary schools.

For years, JCPS has used the “cluster system” for elementary schools. Depending on a student’s address, they have access to a group of elementary schools, both close to home and far away. The latest plan gives students in the West End and downtown more elementary options to choose from in their cluster, including more close-to-home options. The latest proposal also aligns all clusters to specific middle schools and high schools, increasing the likelihood students would progress with the same group of classmates through their K-12 career.

This would reduce the number of “feeder patterns,” the ways students move from elementary to middle to high school. Officials say this will help students feel a better sense of belonging among students. They also say it makes the student assignment plan easier for parents to understand.

Funding and support

The proposed changes will undoubtedly worsen racial and economic segregation in the district.

Many parents and critics are worried that schools in the West End and downtown will become more concentrated with students of color, low-income students and students with the greatest needs. Decades of research shows this has negative effects on student outcomes. One major reason is because segregated schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers. Also, low-income parents and parents of color are typically less able to raise funds privately through Parent Teacher Associations, and they have less social and political capital with district officials.

In a nod to these concerns, the district has outlined a plan to provide extra resources to the high-poverty schools the proposal will create. The school board committed in 2020 to setting aside $15 million in extra funding for the high-need schools, and $12 million for racial equity initiatives.

The proposal calls for funding high-needs schools with more staff, and a “competitive” compensation package to recruit and retain them.

You can find more details about the proposal, and provide feedback through an online survey here.

To learn even more about the history of desegregation in Louisville, and see what the community is saying about this new plan, check out our five-part series on student assignment.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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