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At its July 9 meeting, School District 65’s Strategic Planning Committee grappled with some key issues that have vexed the community for many years, including whether the District should establish a new school in the Fifth Ward and whether the District should allocate additional resources to schools with concentrations of low-income students.

After almost three hours of debate, the Committee decided it will not recommend that the District establish a new school in the Fifth Ward, but that the District study the issue in the context of an overall study of the District’s facilities. A proposal to allocate additional resources to schools based on need fell for lack of support.

The Committee made progress in prioritizing goals in three areas: staff and instructional support; community outreach; and facilities and finances. The Committee ran out of time, however, to reach agreement on three overarching goals and a vision for the District, which will put the process of developing a first draft of a five-year strategic plan behind schedule.

So far, the Committee has held six lengthy meetings. The Committee consists of forty persons: five central office administrators; seven principals or vice-principals; eleven teachers; all seven School Board members; nine parents; and one member of the business community.

A Fifth Ward School

Members of the Committee had put establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward on the table during brainstorming sessions in earlier meetings. The Fifth Ward, which includes the area south of the canal and west of Green Bay Road, has historically been predominantly African-American.

The Fifth Ward’s school, Foster School, was closed as a neighborhood school in 1967 as part of the District’s desegregation plan. Since that time many African-American students in the Fifth Ward have been bused to schools in north Evanston, in part to racially balance those schools. (See sidebar.)

Jerome Summers, a member of the School Board and the Committee, said, “We’ve had hundreds of kids bused out of the Fifth Ward for decades. … The Fifth Ward is the only community in the City that does not have an educational legacy. … I’ve seen the devastation of a community where kids who live across the street from each other are bused to different schools. Schools build communities. It would be appropriate to establish a school in the Fifth Ward.”

Another committee member said one of the core values approved by the Committee was the opportunity for every child to attend a neighborhood school. “If we value it, we should strive for it and make plans to try to find a way to make it work. … That community needs a school.”

“I would like us to address the lack of a school in the Fifth Ward,” Jessica Clarke, a Committee member and parent, said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The Committee’s facilitator, Bill Attea, said, “I think desire and reality need to be balanced. …What I don’t want is to put something in the strategic plan that can’t be achieved.”

Mr. Attea said a new school would cost between $25 million and $35 million and that, under state law, a new school would need to be approved in a referendum by persons residing in the District. He said if the Committee decided to move ahead with this as a goal, it should determine where the school would be located, what it would cost, and analyze the benefits and constraints of establishing the school. The Committee should then convince the Board to place the question on the ballot as a referendum question, and then educate the community. He said extensive planning would be needed for a referendum.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “I have a concern we don’t rehash the same issues.” He said the Board looked at establishing a school for about 250 students in the Fifth Ward as part of the last strategic plan, and it decided not to move ahead with the project because of financial concerns. “We’re still facing substantial budget deficits,” Dr. Murphy said.

He added that the District also did an analysis of the impact busing had on student achievement and found there was no material difference in academic achievement for students who were bused and those who were not bused.

“If this is important, then let’s say we’re going to get it done,” Dr. Murphy said. “If we can’t, let’s not do it.”

Katie Bailey said if the District opened a new school, it might have to close another school. She added that if the District built a new school it should consider establishing a “green” school.

Andrew Pigozzi said if the District established a new school it would have to consider the possibility of redistricting. He added that when the District conducts a study of its facilities (which is a Committee goal), it may determine it will be more feasible to tear down a school and build a new one in the Fifth Ward than to rehab an existing school.

Dr. Murphy said that some persons who had expressed concerns about establishing a school in the Fifth Ward said it would result in resegregating schools in the District. Dr. Murphy added, though, “Many communities would opt for a neighborhood school rather than a desegregated school.”

Tracy Wallace said, “I was an advocate for the Fifth Ward School for ten years. The demographics have changed. The bottom line is if we could build a school for 250 kids, it doesn’t serve all the kids [in the Fifth Ward]. The Fifth Ward will support it. Black people will support it. But the community won’t support it.”

Mr. Summers challenged the assumption that the community would not support a new school in the Fifth Ward. He acknowledged, though, that demographics in the Fifth Ward were changing and that white and Hispanic students were moving into the ward. He also said, “I’m facing the fact that 20 years from now, there may be no black kids in the Fifth ward. But a school should still be in the community.”

Dr. Murphy suggested the District conduct a comprehensive survey to determine how much resistance there would be to a Fifth Ward school. “Let’s find out if the community wants it first,” he said.

Bonnie Lockhart said “a comprehensive survey of the District may be a good thing.” She suggested it could cover other topics as well, such as whether to establish community learning centers.

Anna Marie Anderson, a parent on the Committee, said, “I think it’s very important for that community to have a school. What can we do to help that community? Even if it’s not a Fifth Ward school, what can we do for that community? What are the options? I feel we’re leaving them behind.”

The Committee decided by a wide margin to address the issue of a Fifth Ward school in the strategic plan. There was not enough support, though, to recommend establishing a new school there. Instead the Committee decided by a hand vote to recommend that the issue be analyzed as part of an overall study of the District’s facilities.

Allocation of Resources

Ms. Clarke suggested that the strategic plan include as a goal: “Allocate resources to schools based on the needs of their children to ensure that all third-graders are reading above grade level and that every child has the literacy skills needed for high school.”

She said, “This would ensure that kids who are falling behind get the resources they need.”

Dr. Murphy said if more resources were allocated to certain schools, they should be allocated based on Title I status, where there is a concentration of low-income students. He said if the District could prioritize the allocation of resources, “It would allow us to make class-size reductions in schools where there’s a need. We could try to prioritize the teaching conditions at Title I schools first.”

Dr. Murphy said the District currently receives about $900,000 in Title I funds that are used to address the needs of low-income students at Title I schools.

One teacher said the District allocates reading specialists and other support services to address the needs of students who need assistance.

In a vote by a show of hands, about four or five Committee members voted to include the proposal to allocate resources based on need in the draft strategic plan, and four or five voted against it. About 15 Committee members did not vote. The proposal was not included in the list of goals.

The Goal Topics/Next steps

The strategic plan will include goals for six areas or “strands”: curriculum; instruction; student and family support; staff and instructional support; community outreach and services; and facilities and finances. The Committee decided on general goal “topics” for the first three strands on June 25, and it modified some of those at its July 8 meeting. The Committee approved goal topics for the remaining three strands at its July 8 meeting.

The goal topics are listed in the accompanying sidebar.

The next meeting of the Committee is scheduled for Sept. 13. At that time the Committee will consider a vision statement which will outline what the Committee would like the District to look like in ten years. The Committee will also consider three overarching goals for the District to achieve in the next five years.

It is unclear whether the District will approve a draft strategic plan at its Sept. 13 meeting or at a subsequent meeting. The Committee will hold a series of public hearings to obtain input from administrators, teachers and parents, and community members after the draft report is prepared.

As part of the District’s desegregation plan implemented in 1967, Foster School (which was 99 percent African-American and located at Foster Street and Dewey Avenue in the Fifth Ward) was closed as an attendance-area school and converted into a magnet school to draw white students from throughout the District and thereby desegregate the school. About 400 black students who had attended Foster school were reassigned and bused to predominantly white schools throughout the District to desegregate those schools. About 400 white students who applied for the magnet program were bused to Foster School to desegregate that school.

In the latter part of the 1970s, the District closed seven schools in light of declining enrollment; the attendance areas of many schools in the District were redrawn to adjust for the school closings and to maintain racial balance. One of the seven schools was Foster School; the magnet program at Foster was transferred to Skiles Middle School, now King Lab School.

The other six schools that were closed were College Hill, Miller, Noyes, Kingsley (which reopened in about 1990), Central and Timber Ridge (which reopened as a magnet school in about 2003 and is now called Bessie Rhodes).

The District has considered whether to reestablish a school in the Fifth Ward on several prior occasions. In 2002, the District’s Long Range Planning Committee recommended that if the District established a new school, that it do so in the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road.

In 2002 the School Board adopted a Strategic Plan which set as a goal that the District “Review the desirability and feasibility of establishing a school in the Fifth Ward.” In late 2002, the administration proposed that the District establish a school for 240 students at Weisbourd Holmes Family Focus Building (the old Foster School building). The administration projected the District could make necessary renovations of the building for $1.7 million, that it could lease the space for $1 a year, and that the cost of utilities and custodial and security staff would be about $100,000 per year. On Feb. 16, 2003, six members of the School Board said they could not support a Fifth Ward school because of the District’s financial condition. At that time the District was projecting deficits of $40 million over the next six years.

For more information concerning the closing of Foster School see prior stories (6/19/02 and 6/18/03) available in the online edition of this issue of the RoundTable.

Goal Topics Approved by the Strategic Planning Committee

The School District 65 Planning Committee has approved the following goal topics for the areas, or “”strands,”” indicated. These may be revised and fleshed out in the draft strategic plan:

Curriculum: 1) Ensure that students graduating from the District have the necessary literacy skills to be successful in high school and adult life; 2) Determine the developmental and educational needs of pre-kindergarten-aged children in the community, assess the resources in the community for meeting these needs, and determine the District’s role in ensuring that these needs are met for all children, in cooperation with their parents and community resources; 3) Provide elementary-grade students an opportunity to be introduced to a world language other than English.

Instruction: 1) Successfully implement a program of differentiated instruction and enrichment that will address the needs of each individual student; 2) Implement technology-mediated instruction through the District; 3) Successfully implement Response to Intervention (RTI) throughout the District to monitor and assist students experiencing difficulty in reaching the District’s goals for instruction; 4) Ensure the integration and inclusion of students with disabilities in all programs, as appropriate.

Student and Family Support: 1) Create a welcoming climate in each school that engages parents more extensively in the education of their children; 2) Effectively implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Program (PBIS) in the schools to improve student behavior and reduce suspensions; 3) Evaluate the health services required to meet the needs of the student body across the District and to develop a plan for addressing these needs within the District’s responsibility and resources.

Staff and Instructional Support: 1) Recruit and retain a highly competent and diverse staff; 2) Provide flexible use of resources and provide time in the day for professional collaboration, planning and instruction.

Community Outreach and Services: 1) Develop stronger relationships with School District 202, Northwestern University and the school community; 2) Obtain regular feedback from the community.

Facilities and Financing: 1) Conduct a District-wide facility study, which will include a study of a Fifth Ward school, the middle schools’ science labs and green facilities; 2) Ensure financial solvency of the District.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...