Louisville Groups Unite to Close Gaps in Achievement and Graduation Rates

Published January 1, 2009

A coalition of black pastors, civil rights leaders, and school choice activists is combining research and grassroots action to promote school choice as a catalyst for reforms in Kentucky.

The group is working to close widening achievement and graduation gaps between black and white students in the state’s largest school district.

A report released by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in late October found achievement  gaps in reading and math between black and white students in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) are growing at more than one-third of the 120 schools included in the study.

Only 22 of those 120 schools are likely to close the reading gap between blacks and whites in the next decade if current trends continue, concludes education analyst Richard G. Innes in “State of the School District: How Whites and Blacks Perform in Jefferson County Public Schools.”

‘Dropout Factories’

“Graduation should be a central focus for educators,” Innes said. “In this economy, a student who never graduates is virtually unemployable—something that’s been verified in growing youth-unemployment rates.”

Instead of relying on questionable state graduation-rate data, Innes used a formula developed by Johns Hopkins University, known as Promoting Power Indexes, to analyze rates at 19 Louisville high schools. Schools graduating less than 60 percent of students are “dropout factories,” according to Johns Hopkins.

“Today, there’s a crisis in our village in metro Louisville,” said Pastor Jerry Stephenson, minister of Midway Church of Christ and leader of the Kentucky Alliance for Restoring Education (KARE), a coalition that includes the Bluegrass Institute. “The escalation of teenage crime and violence and juvenile detention centers that are running over is a crisis that has its roots in the failing public education system all over this country—and Jefferson County is no exception.”

According to Innes’s study, only 38 percent of Shawnee High School’s black males graduated in 2007. Only six of the 19 high schools in the study escaped the dropout factory designation for black males.

At two high schools—Iroquois and Valley high schools—none of the student groups’ graduation rates was above 60 percent, meaning the entire schools were dropout factories.

Surprising Find

Innes says the poor performance trends of white students means even closing the gaps may not be enough to bring minority academic and graduation levels to acceptable levels.

“The most surprising thing in the report is that white female graduation rates are decaying faster than either white male or African-American rates for either sex,” Innes said. “Even though the white female graduation rates are still higher than for the other groups, it doesn’t do much good to show gaps are closing if that happens only because less-disadvantaged students constantly face a lower target to shoot at.”

Media coverage of the report’s release surpassed previous stories on achievement gaps and school choice. It led the Louisville media market’s highest-rated TV newscast one hour after its release and was covered in a front-page story in the state’s largest newspaper, the Courier-Journal, on October 21—a first for a newspaper that has offered unwavering editorial support for teacher unions and staunch opposition to any school choice policy.

Stephenson says any reform plan without choice is unacceptable. “We believe that in order to improve the education of our children, the village and JCPS must have public charter schools and tax credits for private and church schools to serve children with special needs and disciplinary issues,” he said.

Dismissed by Educrats

The unprecedented media coverage forced a response from local officials who had previously rejected the Bluegrass Institute’s invitation to engage in public debate about choice.

JCPS Research Director Bob Rodosky issued a terse response, telling reporters the study contained nothing new and aimed to paint the district in the “worst light possible.”

Stephenson disagrees, saying the needed sense of urgency was missing from the district’s responses.

“It took us over 30 years to get into this failing system, but we do not have 30 years to make corrections without seeing thousands of children end up in our jails and prisons,” Stephenson said. “This injustice must no longer take place in our village. The village must come together, rise up, and declare that this is unacceptable and demand that changes be made.”

Union Sues District, Superintendent

KARE’s leaders praised new JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman for refusing to renew the contracts of 18 teachers who had performance and disciplinary problems. The Jefferson County Teachers Association, regarded as one of the most powerful local labor groups in the nation, sued Berman and the school district in May.

One of the teachers whose contract was not renewed failed to show up for class for 30 days without an excused absence.

Stephenson’s group backs the superintendent’s action and wants the district to conduct an audit of all employees.

“The teachers union will fight this change, but it must take place,” Stephenson said. “School employees that cannot meet the twenty-first century challenges of educating our children must be removed.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“State of the School District: How Whites and Blacks Perform in Jefferson County Public Schools,” by Richard G. Innes, Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, October 20, 2008: http://bipps.org/pubs/2008/policypoint102008.pdf