The west Louisville forum held on Wednesday at the St. Stephen Family Life Center was advertised as a discussion about the school to prison pipeline, but the talk from the local author Duane Campbell actually turned out to be about Jefferson County Public Schools.
After an 14-month audit found the system deficient in many areas, Kentucky interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended that the state take control of JCPS. The more than 100 forum attendees on Wednesday were divided on the issues of state control, but they all agreed that the status quo at JCPS is unacceptable.
“I don’t think the black community realizes the real crisis our black kids are in and have been for a long time. I don’t know if state has the answers, but I do know JCPS needs some radical, revolutionary change,” said Rev. Kevin Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church and president of Simmons College of Kentucky, which sponsored the West Louisville Forum: Solutions for Urban America.
As a college president, Cosby said it saddens him to see new students using federal aid money on remedial classes that don’t count toward their degree because JCPS failed to prepare them for college level work.
Until the danger of state control arose, Cosby said, JCPS officials have avoided making any significant changes. He feels JCPS needs incentives to get top-ranked teachers into low-performing schools, more African-American teachers in the classroom and to negotiate with unions to make adjustments like extended school hours and shorter summer breaks.
Cosby hopes the public school system will be more responsive to the community now that data from the audit supports complaints African-American parents have made for years about the racial achievement gaps and other issues in the schools.
The forum is a series of discussions held on the first Wednesday of each month. It is sponsored by Simmons and Empower West Louisville, a coalition of Louisville area pastors and churches.
Campbell, author of “From Preschool to the Penitentiary,” told the audience that the problems at JCPS could not be addressed in a vacuum. They are interrelated to other issues like food insecurity, homelessness, low wages and drug problems, he said.
“You can’t address JCPS when your community dwells in poverty, when you have houses that are boarded up. When you have all of that going on in your community, the school system will not be fixed. You can’t attack the school system without addressing the whole paradigm of events,” Campbell said.
The author told Insider that not only is JCPS failing black students but the greater community is, too, by accepting negative media images about the criminality of black youth.
He pointed to legislation such as the state’s recent anti-gang law as counterproductive when it comes to actually decreasing crime. Instead of keeping kids out of gangs, Campbell said, the law will limit the options for young people in gangs who are trying to change their lives.
“I did gang intervention work for 20 years. I’ve been everywhere in Louisville you can go. I met some brilliant young men and women in this community that were wearing red or blue, or throwing up signs, or whatever, but that did not deter from the original brilliance they had in their mind. What we need to do is give them more opportunity to use their minds in a positive way,” he added.
The forum attracted a diverse group of people, including Glenn Sea, the Mayor of Worthington Hills. The children of his East End constituents attend JCPS schools such as Chancey Elementary and Eastern High School.
Sea said his grandchild attends the West End School, a free, private, college preparatory elementary and middle school at 3628 Virginia Ave. The school is for boys, grades pre-K through 8th grade.
Sea said his family picked the school because of the small class sizes encourage a greater connection between teachers and students. He also likes that the school requires parents to be involved. Sea believes greater local control in the school system would solve many of Metro Louisville’s problems.
“I approach education as a form of crime prevention. It is a fact that kids learn more from ages 2 to 5 than at any other time in their lives. I don’t think black children are getting the tools they need at those ages. Once they fall behind, it’s harder for them to catch up,” he said.
Former Kentucky State University President Raymond Burse closed out the program by encouraging the attendees to show up at JCPS school board meetings. He said the board tends to make better decisions when it knows people are watching.