Kentucky district opens path to racial diversity


Model: When Louisville and Jefferson County schools merged in 1974, a howl ensued, but today the integration plan is praised for its success.

September 22, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - What if Baltimore County schools absorbed Baltimore City schools, and families in the newly formed district had a wide choice of schools in a carefully crafted plan intended to promote racial diversity?

Such a "metropolitan" cure to school segregation has been discussed for years. I have in my hopeless chest a lawsuit drafted by a local lawyer that would have forced a city-county merger three decades ago. It was never filed.

What didn't happen in Baltimore, however, did occur 30 years ago in this river city that plays host to the Kentucky Derby. The racial mixing plan, greeted with howls of distress, has evolved from busing to "managed choice," which allows parents to choose from a group of schools with the condition that all schools must maintain an enrollment that is at least 15 percent and no more than 50 percent black. (The district is 34 percent African-American.)

A federal judge upheld the plan in late June, and civil rights leaders have praised the 98,000- student district for taking seriously the dictate of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's 1954 monumental decision outlawing public school segregation. Today, Louisville is considered a model at a time when most of the nation's African-American students attend predominantly black schools that are beset by high poverty and inexperienced teachers.

Indeed, the superintendent, Stephen Daeschner, boasted at an education conference here last week that Jefferson County, which absorbed Louisville schools in 1974, "is the most integrated district in the United States."

That's not all Louisville/Jefferson County has accomplished. The district has some characteristics and programs that Maryland school systems might ponder. To wit:

Stable leadership. Leadership is everything, and Daeschner has led the district for 12 years, an amazing feat in a system with an elected school board. The average term of an urban school chief in the United States is less than two years. Daeschner has had close calls, but he has survived, and so have many of his reforms.

"The stability of the superintendency matters," said Robert D. Felner, dean of the University of Louisville College of Education. "In Kentucky, we've gotten to the point where the biggest school system in the commonwealth is moving faster than the rest of the state. School improvement in Jefferson County is not a spasm, as is so often the case elsewhere."

A genuine interest in alternative teacher certification. Maryland officials talk a good game when they discuss such alternative programs as Teach for America, which places young college graduates in underserved urban and rural schools after a summer of training, but outside Baltimore City, there's little interest in a state with chronic teacher shortages.

Jefferson County has 12 alternative programs, including one for minority women. And the University of Louisville has 170 students in a minority teacher program.

A genuine interest in reading and in early childhood education. When state budget cutbacks threatened the district's "Everyone Reads" program, officials set out to raise $8 million from private sources to keep it going. And Jefferson County enrolls 90 percent of 4-year-olds and 60 percent of 3-year-olds who qualify for free lunch.

No school, no district is perfect. There's talk of a teacher strike in Louisville, the black-white achievement gap is still wide (although test scores are up) and principal turnover in the district is too high: 99 of 140 school heads have departed in the past five years.

But it's always instructive to see how the other half lives and to draw lessons from it.

UB to offer 6 scholarships to city schools employees

The University of Baltimore has expanded its City Fellows program to the Baltimore school system. The university will award up to six scholarships a year to school employees in subject areas related to their current position.

The program allows full-time Department of Education employees to advance their careers "while raising the bar on city services," said UB President Robert L. Bogomolny.

Study areas available include business, management information systems, public administration, applied psychology and legal and ethical studies.

Could this be considered another calculated risk?

My tall tale of the day: At Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday, an individual later discovered to be a public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a set square, a slide rule and a calculator.

At a morning news conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he believes the man is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. He is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.

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