Law & Courts

No Shades of Gray

By Andrew Trotter — October 03, 2006 7 min read
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A visitor to the map room of Kentucky’s Jefferson County school district arrives at a windowless con ference room in a bunkerlike office building and faces walls covered by huge maps of Louisville and the surrounding county.

Superimposed over the maps’ streetscapes are color-coded territories with handwritten labels, defining clusters of the district’s elementary schools, as well as the attendance zones of its middle schools. Those details, and many others on the maps, have been worked out with a fine attention to the racial composition of the city’s neighborhoods.

Diversity on the Docket
Kentucky: No Shades of Gray
Seattle: Target Demographics

Pat Todd, the director of student assignment for the 97,000-student district, gestures to explain the student-assignment schemes on the maps, which apply to most of the district’s 88 elementary, 24 middle schools, and 21 high schools.

One effect of the plan is clear and intentional: It tends to shift students from Louisville’s west end, composed mostly of African-American neighborhoods with higher poverty rates, to schools in the wealthier and mostly white neighborhoods to the east and south of the district. And the plan lures many students from those areas to schools in the west end. The district covers all of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.

Usually, parents have chosen the schools their children attend. White parents put their children on district buses so the children will have access to special programs offered only at schools in majority-black areas. Black families are attracted to the east end by the quality of the schools there.

But the district’s “managed choice” plan has compulsory elements, too. Students are classified by the district as either black or “other,” which encompasses white, Asian, and Latino students. And a school may not enroll a new student if doing so would push its black enrollment below 15 percent or above 50 percent of the school’s total.

Community Voices
Click on the photographs below to listen to voices of people affected by the Jefferson County School District’s “managed choice” school assignment program.
Click to hear audio interview
Bessie Giles, 2nd Grade Teacher, Wilder Elementary School.
MP3 file (1:24)

Click to hear audio interview
Elizabeth Cooper, parent of 5th grader Tori Cooper, Wilder Elementary School.
MP3 file (1:28)

Click to hear audio interview
Vedant Kumar, 8th grade, Meyzeek Middle School.
MP3 file (1:42)

Click to hear audio interview
Debbi Mudd and 5th grade son, Stuart Vart, Kennedy Montessori Elementary School.
MP3 file (1:55)

That race-conscious policy is the target of a legal challenge by Crystal D. Meredith, a white parent here who contends that the policy violated her son’s U.S. constitutional right to equal protection of the law when he was denied a transfer to his neighborhood school on account of his race in 2000.

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Case No. 05-915), in the new term that begins this week.

The case is focusing attention on the benefits and burdens of voluntary student-assignment plans that take race into account. In contrast to a race-conscious assignment policy in the Seattle school district, which the court is also reviewing, the Jefferson County policy grew out of a legacy here of former de jure segregation and years of court-supervised desegregation.

The Jefferson County school board adopted its voluntary plan in 2001, a year after a federal judge had released it from its long-running desegregation order. Ms. Todd said the board developed the plan to fit the district’s population and overcome its segregated pattern of housing, with the starkest examples being the black communities of narrow “shotgun” houses and public-housing projects in the west end and the white-majority suburbs in the county’s east and southsides.

Civic leaders say the school assignment policy has broad public support.The key to that support, many say, is family choice. More than 95 percent of all Jefferson County’s students and more than 90 percent of its black students attend schools of their choice, according to the school district.

But Honi M. Goldman, a spokesman for Teddy B. Gordon, the lawyer representing Ms. Meredith and her son, said the district’s assignment policy is a “cockamamie program,” because it has failed to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

Jefferson County educators say they see benefits in their schools from the diversity achieved under the race-conscious plan.

Keith Look, the principal at Meyzeek Middle School, in a largely African-American neighborhood of central Louisville, said student achievement has been climbing among black students at the school—gains that he attributes partly to the mixing of students from different economic levels that is a byproduct of the plan.

Meyzeek Middle School, which enrolls 1,100 students, offers a magnet program in math, science, and technology, as well as a standard curriculum. An impressive mix of activities continues after school and into the evening.

The school is enrolled to capacity, with a waiting list, which gives administrators the ability to select the most qualified youngsters of those who apply from across a special zone that covers one-third of the entire district. The school also enrolls every applicant from within its local attendance zone; the high enrollment of students from the “other” category keeps the school well under the 50 percent threshold for African-Americans.

In Louisville’s west end, Kennedy Montessori Elementary School also has a waiting list. For the 2006-07 year, the school had 300 applications for 72 kindergarten slots.

Principal Opal Dawson is choosy about whom she admits. She tries to bring in students who have immigrated from other countries, for example, and insists that parents promise to volunteer at least a half-hour per week. But the 600-student school is constantly in danger of bumping up against the 50 percent ceiling on the number of black students. Ms. Dawson often must send some black applicants to other schools in the same cluster of elementary schools, which includes schools in white-majority neighborhoods to the south.

Student Demographics: Jefferson County

*Click image to see the full chart.


(2005-06 data)

School Snapshots



Located in Louisville’s heavily African-American west side, Kennedy Elementary enrolls 600 students in grades K-5, many from white-majority neighborhoods in the south of Jefferson County. About 300 students applied for 72 seats in kindergarten for the 2006-07 school year.



In a white-majority suburb in the eastern part of Jefferson County, Wilder Elementary receives students from African- American neighborhoods in downtown Louisville to achieve its black enrollment. The 568-student school offers a standard curriculum in grades K-5.

NOTE: Percents do not add to 100 because of rounding.
SOURCE: Kentucky Department of Education

Kennedy Elementary, which from the outside is a mustard brick box surrounded by a chain-link fence, stands on the edge of Park DeValle, a new housing development built on the site of a demolished public housing project.

The closely spaced but detached houses create a small-town atmosphere, with green lawns newly planted with young trees. The community was designed to be economically “multidimensional” to attract residents across a range of income levels. The homes may differ widely in size and appointments, but they are architecturally harmonious in their outward appearance.

Ms. Dawson said Park DeValle is not as diverse racially is it is economically, but the development has eased crime fears that used to deter white families from wanting to send their children to Kennedy.

Both the Meyzeek and Kennedy schools have enrollments reflecting social change in the Louisville area, include students from Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and other regions.

“It’s our decision for our school to look like society,” Ms. Dawson said. “It’s a microcosm of it, and in our staff as well.”

And choice of school apparently is not available equally to all families.

The district has located some of its ESL programs in schools in black neighborhoods, which allows schools in those neighborhoods that are close to the 50 percent limit of black students to adopt a similar tactic. They balance their enrollments by taking in more Hispanic students, who counts as “other” under the district’s classifications.

Maria Lopez, a Hispanic parent whose child attends Kennedy Montessori, said that when she sought to enroll her son, officials assigned him to Kennedy without giving her a choice.

Nonetheless, Ms. Lopez said she likes Kennedy “because they teach the children well,” and because it has bilingual teachers she can speak with. Her son, 1st grader Adolfo Briceño, “feels comfortable there,” she said.

But her son’s 45-minute bus ride to and from school makes it difficult to participate at the school, she said, noting that she has gone to the school only four times over the past year.

“Since I don’t have a car, I don’t have a way to go,” Ms. Lopez said.

No student-assignment plan can be perfect, said Ms. Todd of the Jefferson County district. She said that if the Supreme Court struck down the Jefferson County plan, the schools gradually would trend toward enrollments that more closely match the housing patterns around them.

Special programs alone would not by themselves persuade many busy families to send their children to school across town, Ms. Todd said.

The district might consider other assignment tools, such as using family income level or participation in the federal school lunch program, instead of race, to maintain diversity. But those methods also can impose unwanted burdens. For example, parents might oppose a plan that requires them to submit their income information. And economic status, unlike race, can change from year to year.

Far into the district’s east side, Bessie Giles, a 2nd grade teacher at Wilder Elementary, in a white-majority community, said she sees firsthand the benefits of the school assignment plan on the African-American students who arrive at the school daily by bus.

“I think kids need to be allowed to go and experience the things that are not within their neighborhood,” she said. “Exposure is the best thing for kids, and sometimes in your own neighborhood, kids don’t get all of the exposure that they actually need.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as No Shades of Gray


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