As part of our celebration of Black History Month, we wanted to showcase some school districts and cities that are doing remarkable things – unique, difficult, and oft-opposed things – to provide a quality education to underserved students.
We start with Jefferson County Public Schools, in (and around) Louisville, KY.
Originally featured in a 2015 Atlantic piece, the story of how Jefferson County Public Schools has fought to maintain integration despite years of opposition and even a Supreme Court ruling against them is both fascinating and heartening. Integrated since 1972, Louisville now has decades of data and information to bolster claims of success in equalizing and improving education for its students, regardless of location or income.
The article points out that Louisville has seen strong economic growth, even outpacing the nation in some employment metrics, in recent years. Given that the economic health of a region is often tied to the education of its residents, having a city where all residents are exposed to a good education show signs of prosperity is no surprise.
Instead of year after year of students in certain low-income neighborhoods attending failing schools, schools with inadequate resources or high teacher turnover, the students in Jefferson County schools are – based on a special system created just for them – dispersed mostly evenly throughout the county’s schools. Parents apply to schools in “clusters,” where each cluster contains racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, and then their children are assigned to a school within the cluster with no guarantee that it will be the first (or second or third) choice.
With Jefferson County Public Schools being 49 percent white, 37 percent black, and 14 percent Latino and other ethnic and racial groups, the district officials in charge of school assignments try hard to keep a similar make-up in each school through busing. This has numerous advantages:
- Students of all races and backgrounds grow up together, learn together, and become friends, leading to less “othering” and more understanding. Diversity in the classroom expands learning beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic; students are exposed to an array of ideas and cultural norms through their peers.
- Desegregated schools generally raise the quality of all schools. As with any school system, there are lower-ranked schools and incredible schools, but the odds of having persistently failing schools with no or little intent to improve them – which in other cities are usually filled with students of color and/or low-income students – are slim.
- As mentioned above, a school system that accurately reflects the diversity of its residents and educates them all well leads to economic growth, decreased crime, and decreased poverty.
Jefferson County and Louisville are rare in their approach to public education. The article delves much further into other cities where similar integration efforts collapsed due to legal rulings, protests, and demographical shifts. What makes Jefferson County Public Schools stand out so much is not just that they are almost alone in their efforts, but that their efforts continue to persist despite a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the integration plan (legally, at least). In stark contrast to the 1970s, when the majority of Louisville area parents protested the busing and integration, in 2006, numerous parents, educators, district graduates, and civil rights groups felt so strongly about keeping it that they found a way to do so after the Supreme Court ruling.
Whether or not a school system like this one – with busing and clusters and its application process – will work for every city is not the point. The point is that too few cities are even trying to desegregate their schools. In order to have a future where all children have access to a great education, more school systems need to get rid of the status quo, where currently far too many students of color languish in underperforming schools.