How Jefferson County Came Together on Diversity in Schools

My reaction to the Courier-Journal coverage of Jefferson County Public Schools and its history of student assignment hit me after I read the Sunday installment: Wow, what laudable legacy of hard work and commitment on the part of so many school leaders and experts over so many years. We have had a lot of debates, but sometimes the best policies are developed when we wrestle through important issues and work together toward solutions. And when the fight’s over, we’ve always figured out how to move forward.

We’ve come to various agreements over the years over this emotional, complex issue of desegregation when it was ordered it in 1975, and even after the court order was lifted in 2000. 

Coming together is not currently a feature of our politics or even our public life. We take sides, demonizing those opposed to us, and seem to be unwilling to join in the give and take it requires to admit to shared values and solve problems. But when it comes to Jefferson County’s student assignment plan, we should be proud of our unique record.

Believing in Desegregation

We have become well known for our commitment to school desegregation. In 2015, our efforts were highlighted an article in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “The City that Believed in Desegregation.” The author said, “Indeed, it could be argued that Louisville, an economically vibrant city in a highly conservative and segregated state, is a success today in large part because of its integrated schools and the collaborations among racial and economic groups that have come as a result.”

The collaborations among community leaders have been the key to the longevity of the efforts to ensure diversity in schools.  

The story of student assignment in JCPS is quite a tale, and I wasn’t around for most of it. I did spend 8 years on the board of education during the pivotal years from 2007 through 2014. I learned about the 1970s from my former school board colleague Carol Haddad who was first elected in 1975 when the desegregation order came down. Imagine being on the front lines of implementing the first-ever busing plan. Of course, the board had to respond because the court said it had to.

Good friends of mine tell the story of that first decade when they were high school students, bused from eastern Jefferson County to Central High School. One says the experience, “was the best thing that happened to me.” Of course, there are other perspectives, as well.

I learned about the stories even before I moved here from Washington, D.C. in 1995. I asked a couple people who were from here about where to live. One said, “Oldham County, good, Jefferson County, bad” with a clear reference to busing. The other person I asked was Mike Ward, who was the U.S. Representative from Louisville then. He said the opposite, of course. My daughter was just two years old, but I ordered information about the school district before we moved here and read about the diversity system. She started kindergarten in JCPS and graduated from high school here in 2012.

JCPS is among the last of the big city school systems that still operates a student assignment plan that takes race into account when students are assigned to schools. It’s not the only factor: family income and education level are now part of the mix, too. 

A Loss and A Win at the Supreme Court

The expanded diversity definition was developed after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2007 that struck down the plan in place at the time. I was sworn in for my first term on the board that year. I remember sitting around a computer in the central office with a few others as we refreshed the web site waiting to see the decision posted.  A few district leaders traveled to D.C. to attend the court session and watch the presentations, including our lead attorney, Frank Mellen of Wyatt, Tarrant, & Combs. He did a masterful job. But we lost in a 5-4 decision. However, in another way, we also won. In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy gave us an opening to achieve diversity in other ways, like using attendance zones.

It was among Dr. Sheldon Berman’s first assignments as our new superintendent to lead the development of a new plan that would pass the new legal test. He was very committed to this work – a task that was neither easy nor universally supported. A plan was put in place that divided the county into big chunks with sections designated as A or B, in which students were moved from one area to the other to reach certain diversity levels. It was good first effort, as it utilized the new diversity index, but it had some criticisms largely because of long bus rides.

I was the board chair when we contracted with Dr. Gary Orfield with the Civil Rights Project to help us develop a plan that would be more acceptable to families and reflective of the diversity of each neighborhood. Their analysis using Census information put a finer lens on each neighborhood, giving more credit to different kinds of diversity. The bottom line was it reduced the distance many children had to travel, but still offered choice and resulted in diverse schools, even though that diversity might not look the same at all schools. Superintendent Donna Hargens implemented this updated plan.

It’s the plan that is in place today, but the JCPS administration is working on another revision where some students in West Louisville may be offered a choice of a school nearby or in a more suburban area of the county. Choice is the value that will move into priority position. 

Preparing Students for a Diverse World

Devoted education leaders are working on this plan, and I believe they recognize the value of diversity. Dr. Pollio also wants to increase investment in West Louisville schools so students there will have more updated facilities, at the time new schools have been built in suburban areas of the county where population has shifted. We do need to be continually working to ensure all students have access to the resources they need, whether it’s facilities, learning materials or quality teaching. 

So, our story continues. The bottom line is that people need to respect other people who see things differently from them.  That’s the only way we’re going to see a plan that meets the challenge of our times. I hope to read about our leaders working it out together, rather than trying to win a debate. What are our values? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? How can we continue to value diversity?

I do believe diversity should still be high on the list of what our school system values, because each of our personal orbits is growing more diverse. We want our students not only to score highly on the tests they take at school, but also prepared to pass the test of living in a world that looks a lot different from the street where they grew up. 

The only way to do that is to continue to be the strong community we’ve been since this all began. Work hard, listen to others and give credit where it is due. Keep making progress for all children. Tough decisions are ahead, but we’re used to that.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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