Editor's Note: Head of the class

Jul 22, 2008 at 9:28 pm

It is June 28, 2007, and a couple handfuls of people are killing time in the superintendent’s conference room on the third floor of the Van Hoose Education Center, headquarters of Jefferson County Public Schools and the Board of Education.

A television is tuned to CNN. Laptop computers are dialed into various legal blogs, as well as the official website of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is about to hand down a decision that will affect Louisville’s public schools more dramatically than anything since 1975, the year the city officially began desegregation efforts. Four years prior, the Supreme Court had given school districts the authority to use forced busing as a means to achieve racial integration. Here, rioting commenced and the Ku Klux Klan held demonstrations.

The room is tense. Nobody gets inside info from the Supreme Court, not even lawyers who’ve just argued before it. All of a sudden, a new crawl sneaks across the bottom of the TV screen: In a 5-4 vote, the court has ruled that race cannot be used as a factor in assigning students to public schools.

“We were stunned,” Pat Todd, assignment director for JCPS, says in her office, now more than a year removed. “It was like sucking the air out of a balloon.”

Turns out, of course, that the initial news reports told a portion of the story. As JCPS attorneys combed through the opinions, they found a golden caveat: Justice Anthony Kennedy had written a separate concurrence saying the court’s ruling should not prevent efforts to ensure racially integrated schools. Importantly, Kennedy mentioned socioeconomic status as a factor in creating diverse schools. JCPS latched onto it.

“We had an opportunity, we had been provided with strategies and boundaries by which we could continue to operate,” Todd says.

The following Monday, Sheldon Berman began his job as superintendent.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured a piece by Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, entitled “The Next Kind of Integration,” a 4,936-word disquisition on class-based student assignment plans that placed Jefferson County in the national vanguard.

JCPS is recognized for its swift, decisive response to keep schools here from falling back into segregation. It contrasts the response of Seattle, the companion case before the Supreme Court; that district seems poised now to return to neighborhood schools. Cheryl Chow, chairwoman of the school board there, recently told the Seattle Times, “It’s not my job to desegregate the city. We serve the kids that come to our doors.”

The people here disagree. And not only school administrators, but scores of community leaders, average citizens, business owners and just about anyone else you could think of. Todd and others say one of the most refreshing things about the nearly yearlong process of assembling a new student assignment plan was how much support there was for school integration — despite athletic, sometimes vehement, sparring over particulars.

Todd has mostly praise for the Times piece, but says it missed the unique, elaborate planning process that birthed the new plan. Upon Berman’s arrival, JCPS developed a “process plan” that included guiding principles — which paralleled Kennedy’s opinion — and a blueprint for how to get there. They formed “work” and “core” groups, pulling some former JCPS heavyweights out of retirement to offer expertise, like Robin Curry, former principal of Milburn T. Maupin Elementary School in the West Louisville neighborhood of Parkland, who is now project manager of student assignment. The district held numerous public meetings, from which they drew a range of criticism and suggestion. As well, Todd says the school district relied on its history of innovation — the magnet school program, where students may move schools to align with certain pre-professional programs, being a superb example — for a foundation.

When the plan was approved May 28, it became the first to ever receive unanimous support from the Board of Education. It divides Jefferson County into two geographic areas, one that comprises much of the west, south and southwest portions of the city — poorer areas — and another that is basically the rest, including the more affluent East End.

According to Todd, many of the factors laid out in Kennedy’s opinion were already being implemented here. Jefferson County was recruiting to facilitate a mix of races, had magnet schools in place and had drawn boundaries to cause racial diversity in schools. As reported in the Times piece, Jefferson County had the most even distribution of black and white students of any district in America with comparable student populations.

But the assignment plan was shortsighted in the current context, based essentially on “black” and “other” students — despite reviews every four to five years. Given the dramatic demographic shifts in Louisville since the mid-90s, including a wave of Hispanic immigrants in the southwestern portion of the city, Todd concedes that the court’s demand for a new policy was well timed.

Here, of some 97,000 JCPS students, more than 50,000 are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program, one measure of socioeconomic status used by the district. Half of those students are African-American, 37 percent are white and 12 percent “other.”

“Given the proportion of the population in the overall school enrollment, it would appear that largely children of color are disproportionately poor,” Todd says, adding, “(those factors) seem to somehow be reflective of one another.”

Much of the research cited in the Times piece — including the groundbreaking work of sociologist James S. Coleman — suggests that achievement is higher in schools where there are more middle- and upper-class families. In Jefferson County, whites perform better than blacks at every academic level through high school on reading and math indexes, according to data provided by JCPS. The biggest difference is in high-school math, where whites average 30 percent higher test scores than blacks.

“If we look at diversity as far as being about race and educational attainment and income, will that give us a better platform by which to address the achievement gaps,” Todd says. “Our research told us that yes, it would, and that’s what this new plan reflects.”

That being said, one ought to tread lightly in assuming race and class are exchangeable. Economist Ronald Ferguson, quoted in the Times piece, reminds that the biggest individual factor in a successful education is strong teaching, something JCPS will need to ensure and maintain. In an utterly complex construct such as the student assignment plan, explaining failure with one or two metrics is dangerous.

What’s refreshing is that, while it could’ve languished under a Supreme Court directive to upend school policy that came a weekend before the new superintendent, JCPS instead became innovative. That bodes well.