By Alana Semuels
Hawthorne Elementary in Louisville, Kentucky, looks like what you might imagine a typical American suburban elementary school to be, with students’ art projects displayed in the hallways and brightly colored rugs and kid-sized tables and chairs in the classrooms. It’s located in a predominantly white neighborhood. But the students look different than those in many suburban schools across America. Some have dark skin, others wear headscarves, others are blonde and blue-eyed. While many of them qualify for free and reduced lunches, others bring handmade lunches in fancy thermal bags and come from well-off families.
Ever since a court forced them to integrate in the 1970s, the city of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County have tried to maintain diverse schools.Louisville and Jefferson County have tried to maintain diverse schools. Though the region fought the integration at first, many residents and leaders came around to the idea, and even defended it all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2006.
“Because the Metro area has a countywide system of public schools that are truly unitary,” the district argued in that case, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, “it has avoided much of the race-based strife and race-conscious decisions that characterize other metropolitan areas with highly segregated schools.”
The Supreme Court decided against Jefferson County, ruling in favor of a parent who argued that her son’s bus ride was too long. But in the years since, the district has found other creative ways of keeping its schools diverse. Today, the Louisville area is one of the few regions in the country that still buses students among urban and suburban neighborhoods. Jefferson County Public Schools is 49 percent white, 37 percent black, and 14 percent Latino and other ethnic and racial groups.
The county, which borders Indiana on the south, spreads across 400 square miles and encompasses census tracts in which more than half of the population lives below the poverty level, and tracts in which less than 10 percent does. But there are no struggling inner-city schools here—the city and county schools are under the same district, and the most sought-after high school within it, duPont Manual, is located near downtown.
Indeed, it could be argued that Louisville, an economically vibrant city in a highly conservative and segregated state, is a success today in large part because of its integrated schools and the collaborations among racial and economic groups that have come as a result. “Our PTA president will drive downtown into neighborhoods she probably would not have gone to, to pick up kids to bring to her house for sleepover,” said Jessica Rosenthal, the principal at Hawthorne Elementary. “I just don’t know how likely that is to happen in a normal school setting.”