Nearly two decades ago, when the school district here was still under a federal court order to desegregate its schools, 32 percent of the students at Wilt Elementary School were black. Nearly every other student was white.
Many of Wilt’s African-American children boarded a bus some 20 miles away in segregated neighborhoods west of downtown Louisville to travel to the K-5 school, where they’d been assigned to help the Jefferson County school system, which includes Louisville and its suburbs, achieve greater racial balance. Wilt also struggled with achievement in those days, with 36 percent of students scoring proficient or higher on state reading tests, and just 10 percent doing so in math.
This school year, Wilt Elementary—located on the southern fringe of the county—has fewer white and black students in its halls, but looks a whole lot more like the rapidly changing population of the United States. Nineteen percent of its students are African-American, 60 percent are white, and more than 20 percent are Hispanic, Asian, or some other race or ethnicity.
Some students travel up to 15 miles by bus to Wilt, but now, most of those who make the longer trip do so by choice. Achievement has improved markedly (though the school lost some ground, as the district did, with the switch in 2012 to tougher, common-core-aligned tests).
The school is also dramatically more diverse in other ways: Eleven languages other than English are spoken by students. Nearly 70 percent of the 450 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. And students who emigrated from Congo, Cuba, Mexico, and Uzbekistan are scattered among their American-born classmates.
Wilt Elementary’s richer cultural tapestry is due, in large measure, to demographic changes in greater Louisville over the past 20 years, but it also reflects the district’s stalwart yet constantly evolving approach to keeping its schools among the nation’s most integrated.
In fact, Jefferson County—with 100,000 students—may be the community where public schools come closest to keeping up the promise of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education: Children of all colors would be educated together and move the nation toward a fairer society no longer divided by race.
“Mostly what we’ve seen in the last couple of decades has been an impressive series of abandonments of desegregation efforts,” said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Louisville is one of the few places that has kept the faith.”
Seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Jefferson County’s voluntary racial-integration plan that assigned students to schools based solely on their race, along with one used by the Seattle school district, was unconstitutional.
Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.
This special series includes reporting on the state of school integration today, video profiles, national data on school desegregation, a timeline of landmark desegregation cases, Commentaries on integration, and more.
Jefferson County has since doubled down on its diversity efforts, using approaches tailored to the 2007 decision, and, in particular, to the opinion of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing vote who agreed with the majority that districts could not solely use the race of individual students to make school assignments. But in his separate concurrence, Justice Kennedy wrote that the ruling “should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.”
That left the door open for using other measures of diversity, such as social class, along with race. Now, the district keeps company with a handful of others, such as Berkeley, Calif., that still consider race along with other diversity measures in student assignments.
Reverting to a system of assigning students to schools based on where they live—which has always had a small but vocal constituency in Louisville—was never really a consideration for the city’s education or civic leaders. Housing segregation is acute in Louisville, with much of the city’s African-American population—much of it low-income—living west of downtown.
“If we truly care about equity and diversity in our schools, neighborhood schools just won’t work,” said Diane L. Porter, the president of the Jefferson County school board.
Still, the school system has advantages over other urban systems that make integration here possible.
Both racially and socioeconomically, its demographics are diverse. A court-ordered merger in 1975—which brought a turbulent and, at times, ugly transition period—joined the mostly black Louisville school system with that of the mostly white Jefferson County and helped stave off white flight to the suburbs. Kentucky also has been one of the last holdouts on allowing charter schools to operate, further insulating the district from losing students to competitors.
“We couldn’t imagine not doing student assignment,” said Carol Ann Haddad, who has served on the Jefferson County school board for nearly 30 years. “Our kids have to live in a global world, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they are prepared to get along in it.”
For years, Jefferson County’s school assignment gurus strived to give every school an enrollment that was between 15 percent and 50 percent African-American. Using magnet schools and specialized programs to attract families to schools outside their neighborhoods, and bus transportation, most schools met that goal, said Robert J. Rodosky, the district’s chief executive director of data management, planning, and program evaluation.
Shift in Approach
But the 2007 Supreme Court ruling forced Louisville to look for an alternative to its race-based plan.
Some dramatic shifts in the district’s population—an increase in the numbers of low-income students and a recent influx of new immigrant families—also gave planners an opportunity to broaden their definition of diversity.
Drawing on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the district now uses a student-assignment plan that classifies its more than 500 census areas into three categories, based on household income, average adult educational-attainment levels, and the percentage of residents who are nonwhite.
The goal in Jefferson County is to ensure that all 155 schools hit a mark that falls within the district’s diversity index, which means, ideally, that no school will be filled with too many children from a Category 1 census block, which has higher-than-average numbers of nonwhites, poor families, and adults who didn’t graduate from high school or go on to college. Currently, 95 percent of schools fall within the diversity index set by the school board, Mr. Rodosky said.
Adding to the complexity of assignment is the robust choice of schools that the district offers. The district’s magnet programs—those within schools as well as whole-school magnets—for years helped attract students from across the county. District planners tweaked the plan nearly every year to address ongoing concerns about long bus rides and to make the array of choices easier to understand.
“We try to strike a balance between choice for our families and diversity in our schools,” said Dena Dossett, the director of planning and program evaluation. “We survey our parents regularly, and, overwhelmingly, our parents want this.” She said 40 percent of district families still choose schools outside their neighborhoods.
Even so, some schools in more-disadvantaged corners of the district lag in reaching diversity goals, as well as achievement goals for poor students and African-American students, said Ms. Porter, the school board president.
“We can always do better,” Ms. Porter said. “I have schools in my district that are not as full as I’d like. Some of our magnet programs need strengthening to help us address that because students and families want to go where the education is exceptional.”
On a recent April morning at Wilt Elementary, the school’s rich mix of students sit in quiet, orderly rows in the cafeteria, where many have just finished breakfast. Kimberly Kent, Wilt’s principal of 15 years, greets them: “Aloha, ohana,” she says, using a Hawaiian expression that means “hello, family.” “Aloha, ohana,” the students respond.
‘This Is Your Family’
Ms. Kent, who came to Wilt as a counselor, remembers when the school culture focused more on showcasing the differences among its diverse students. For several years, however, she and her staff have worked to build an inclusive culture focusing on what students have in common, she said.
“I always start the first morning meeting of the year by telling students to look around the room and find faces that don’t look like their faces,” she said. “And then I tell them: ‘These are your friends. This is your family.’ ”
As its black and white student population has diversified, and as its share of poor families has grown to nearly 70 percent, achievement at the school has steadily improved. Once among the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district, Wilt, for several years running, has been right in line with, or even outperformed, the district in the share of students who score proficient or better on state exams.
In the past few years, Ms. Kent said, more families than the school is able to accommodate under the student-assignment plan have made Wilt their top choice for their children. “You just can’t calculate and capture the value of what these children learn from one another,” said Bonnie Klueger, a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher at Wilt.
Perhaps three of Wilt’s 5th graders can. They are Lucas Habtermariam, Zavian Jackson, and Alyson Barnes, all 11 years old.
“The teachers really care about everyone,” said Lucas, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Eritrea. “It’s really easy to make friends here because everyone respects each other,” said Zavian, who is African-American. Added Alyson, who is white: “I know that I have friends in special education that I might not have met if I went to another school.”
Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Despite High Court Ruling, Ky. District Stays Integrated