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Diversity and Educational Gains: a plan for a changing county and its schools

Authors: Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg
Date Published: September 12, 2011

In response to the Jefferson County, Kentucky, school board’s request, the authors prepared a plan that builds upon and extends the nationally respected Jefferson County Public School accomplishments in operating diverse schools for nearly four decades. The authors reviewed the existing plan, and proposed a new plan to make the district's desegregation plan more effective and efficient, paying particular attention to decreasing excessive transportation times for students.
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Executive Summary


In response to the school board’s request, we have prepared a plan that builds upon and extends the nationally respected JCPS accomplishments in operating diverse schools for nearly four decades. We interpreted our charge as reviewing the existing plan, making it more effective and efficient and lowering excessive transportation times.  With access to new Census data and extensive information from the school district and other local institutions, we have assessed the degree to which the current plan is the most efficient and effective way to accomplish the board’s primary goal of maintaining a diverse school system. The school district showed strong leadership and deserves great credit for devising and implementing a new plan after 2007 Supreme Court decision but transportation times have been long, and plan is still broadly out of compliance.  In some important respects, the A-B divisions worked much less effectively than the long-established cluster plans.

Our surveys of JCPS parents and high school students about their attitudes and experiences showed a very strong desire for diverse schools and for school choice. Students felt well prepared for the community’s diverse future and strongly supported integration.  Parents were most concerned about excessive transportation, and also very strongly supported the goals of integration. Our survey also showed the need for improving spread of information to parents about school options. Our research convinced us that it was time to begin a serious review of the quality of magnet options.

We summarize research that shows significant benefits of integrated schools but that equalizing the opportunities requires more school level training and accountability on issues on successfully managing diversity at the classroom level.  Our survey of students showed some very positive experiences with teachers but also raised some challenges.  We believe the value of diversity could be significantly increased by training and systemic implementation of research-based cooperative learning strategies.

School segregation is primarily produced by housing segregation of both blacks and whites in parts of the county, especially in the far eastern and western sections.  Hispanics and Latinos are not segregated now. Housing subsidies contributed to segregated, unequal neighborhoods, which makes education and diverse schools more difficult. The school board should ask housing agencies and the metro government to stop housing program operations that reinforce segregation and for help in creating stably diverse neighborhoods and stabilizing transitioning areas.  There are a number of long-term stably integrated neighborhoods in JCPS and we propose to give the families that live in the most stable ones absolute preference to attend the closest school in the second year of the plan, encouraging the gradual replacement of transportation by residential integration.

The existing plan isn’t an accurate reflection of diversity within county. A and B designations by resides areas are too large to be meaningful in describing communities and falsely characterize as uniform what are in fact very diverse areas.  Some of the six clusters are very large; there are long transportation times and 40% schools don’t meet the standards of having between 15 and 50% of students from “A” areas.  A neighborhood student assignment plan, on the other hand, would create intense double segregation by race and poverty.

Due to the nature of the changing residential patterns, however, it’s possible to create diverse schools with less transportation by creating a multifaceted diversity measured by Census block groups and smaller, more compact clusters. The proposed plan is built on an analysis of 540 small neighborhoods and uses a new definition and newer data. Diversity is computed using educational attainment, household income, and percentage of white residents in the block group. These three factors are combined into a composite diversity factor of 1, 2, or 3.  Each small neighborhood is classified on the combination of these variables and integration is accomplished by bringing together children from the nearest possible diverse neighborhoods, greatly reducing maximum travel time. The 13 proposed clusters are smaller and more like the traditional 12 cluster plan. Each is connected with one of the existing transportation compounds and each has considerable diversity.  The proposed clusters being fine-tuned; our suggestions are based on extensive computer analysis but need review by JCPS experts with knowledge of local conditions and capacity before a final list can be released.

Primary schools are the focus at the beginning of this new plan because they were the part of the current plan that produced public concern and discontent and the lengthy transportation requirement. Needed boundary changes for upper grades would come in 2013-14. We propose no mandated change for children already happy in their schools—they could stay there or their families could transfer to a school in the new smaller cluster or a magnet school.

We call for review of magnet schools next year for implementation in 2013-14.  We recommend a focus on full school magnets and elimination of replacement of those magnets that are not magnetic. Transportation should be provided to all schools and admissions criteria strictly limited to make sure magnets are accessible to all interested families.

Kindergarteners would be closer to home under this plan and we recommend that they be included in the normal cluster arrangements so that they can have educational continuity. Kindergarten parents in our January survey were among most supportive of all parents.  Most kindergarten kids are already in cluster schools.

Any student assignment plan needs to consider how to efficiently and effectively transport students to schools.  We believe that the considerable possible savings in a new cluster plan could be enhanced by computerized routing and communications systems that could operate in a real time environment. We recommend that the district’s outside transportation consultant work with JCPS to identify a firm to do this job.

We propose to improve the existing school finder webpage to allow parents to find available school options for their home address as well as information about each school, links to Google maps, JCPS bus finder, and district and state educational data, partnering with community groups to train parents how to access and use this information.  We call on the district to move to online applications to streamline process and reduce staff burden in enrollment. This will enable monitoring and additional outreach efforts as necessary to help improve compliance with diversity plan and help transportation planning.

Annual monitoring and evaluation.  The superintendent should annually report to the board and the public about the plan’s effectiveness in meeting goals and propose needed initiatives as well as help to identify emerging issues such as any segregation of Hispanic or Asian students and monitor school equity issues like student discipline and special education identification.

Experience elsewhere shows that there is ample time to implement this plan for next fall and our experience is that delaying decisions will increase divisions and the ultimate decisions will be no easier; valuable time and energy will be lost.  We have every confidence that the staff of the JCPS can implement a new plan effectively and well once the Board makes the decisions and hope that this is the beginning of another step forward in the nationally respected leadership role of Jefferson County Public Schools. 

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