When visiting the map room of the Jefferson County school district in Kentucky, one is welcomed into a conference room devoid of windows, located in an office building that resembles a bunker. The walls are covered with large maps of Louisville and the surrounding county, with color-coded areas and handwritten labels that indicate the clusters of elementary schools and attendance zones for middle schools. These maps have been meticulously crafted to reflect the racial composition of the city’s neighborhoods.
The director of student assignment for the district, Pat Todd, gestures to explain the student-assignment schemes depicted on the maps. These schemes apply to the majority of the district’s 88 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, and 21 high schools.
One noticeable and deliberate effect of the plan is that it tends to relocate students from Louisville’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods with higher poverty rates to schools in wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods in the eastern and southern parts of the district. Additionally, the plan also attracts students from these wealthier areas to schools in the west end. The Jefferson County school district encompasses the entire area of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.
Traditionally, parents have had the freedom to choose which schools their children attend. White parents often put their children on district buses so that they can attend schools in majority-black areas and have access to special programs offered only at those schools. Conversely, black families are drawn to the east end of the district due to the high quality of schools in that area.
However, the district’s "managed choice" plan also includes compulsory elements. Students are classified by the district as either black or "other," which includes white, Asian, and Latino students. Moreover, a school is forbidden from enrolling a new student if it would result in the black enrollment falling below 15 percent or exceeding 50 percent of the school’s total.
Crystal D. Meredith, a white parent in the district, has challenged this race-conscious policy in a legal case. She argues that the policy violates her son’s constitutional rights to equal protection under the law, as he was denied a transfer to his neighborhood school solely based on his race in 2000.
Keith Look, the principal of Meyzeek Middle School in central Louisville’s predominantly African-American neighborhood, stated that academic performance among black students has been steadily improving at the school. He attributes this progress partly to the integration of students from various economic backgrounds facilitated by the school’s plan. Meyzeek Middle School has a total enrollment of 1,100 students and offers a magnet program in math, science, and technology, in addition to a standard curriculum. The school provides a diverse range of extracurricular activities that continue after school hours and into the evening.
The school is operating at full capacity and has a waiting list, which allows administrators to select the most qualified students from a special zone covering one-third of the district. Additionally, the school also enrolls all applicants from its local attendance zone. The significant number of students from the "other" category ensures that the school remains well below the 50 percent threshold for African-American students.
In Louisville’s west end, Kennedy Montessori Elementary School also has a waiting list. During the 2006-2007 year, the school received 300 applications for only 72 kindergarten slots. Principal Opal Dawson carefully considers the applicants for admission, prioritizing students who have immigrated from other countries and requiring parents to commit to volunteering for at least half an hour per week. However, the school, with a student population of 600, is consistently at risk of reaching the 50 percent limit on the number of black students. As a result, Ms. Dawson often has to redirect some black applicants to other schools within the same cluster of elementary schools, including those in predominantly white neighborhoods to the south.
Looking at the student demographics in Jefferson County, Kennedy Elementary, situated in Louisville’s predominantly African-American west side, has an enrollment of 600 students in grades K-5. Many of these students come from white-majority neighborhoods in the southern part of Jefferson County. The school received approximately 300 applications for 72 kindergarten slots for the 2006-2007 school year. Meanwhile, Wilder Elementary, located in a white-majority suburb in the eastern part of Jefferson County, aims to achieve a diverse student body by enrolling students from African-American neighborhoods in downtown Louisville. This school, with 568 students, offers a standard K-5 curriculum.
Kennedy Elementary, with its mustard brick exterior and surrounded by a chain-link fence, is situated on the outskirts of Park DeValle, a newly developed housing area created on the site of a demolished public housing project. The houses in the community are closely spaced but detached, creating a small-town ambiance. The neighborhood was designed to attract residents from various income levels, resulting in a diverse economic makeup. Although Park DeValle may not be as racially diverse as it is economically diverse, the development has contributed to reducing crime concerns that previously discouraged white families from choosing Kennedy Elementary as a school for their children.
Both Meyzeek and Kennedy schools reflect the changing demographics of the Louisville area, welcoming students from Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and other regions. The schools aim to mirror the diversity of society in both their student population and staff. However, it is evident that equal access to school choice is not available to all families. The district has strategically placed some of its ESL programs in predominantly black neighborhoods, allowing schools in these neighborhoods, which are close to the 50 percent limit of black students, to balance their enrollments by admitting more Hispanic students, who fall under the "other" category in the district’s classifications.
The school district may consider alternative methods for student assignments in order to maintain diversity, such as using family income level or participation in the federal school lunch program, instead of relying on race. However, these methods may also come with unwanted burdens. For instance, some parents might object to a plan that requires them to disclose their income information. Additionally, unlike race, economic status can fluctuate from year to year.
Deep into the eastern part of the district, Bessie Giles, a second-grade teacher at Wilder Elementary in a predominantly white community, witnesses the advantages of the school assignment plan for African-American students who commute to the school by bus on a daily basis. "I believe children should have the opportunity to explore and experience things that are outside their immediate neighborhood," she stated. "Exposure is crucial for children, and sometimes they don’t get all the exposure they truly need within their own community."