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First Published in the RoundTable on Jan. 21, 2009.

At a District 65 School Board meeting on Jan. 6, a discussion on whether to eliminate the “Willard Island” as part of Willard School’s attendance area quickly expanded to include a wide range of other issues: overcrowding at Willard School and other schools, maintaining diversity in the schools, the placement of the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program, the purpose and use of the magnet schools, the impact of the magnet schools on Walker School, and the possibility of establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward.

Board member Mary Rita Luecke said many of these issues “have been simmering in the community” over the last four to seven years.

Katie Bailey said, “I appreciate we’ve opened this up to all schools because I think there are issues at a number of our schools.” She added the issues should be addressed together, because making a change at one school could have a ripple effect on other schools.

Keith Terry said, “There’s an urgent and immediate need to expand and right all kinds of issues in the school system. You look at each school; there’s a problem in each one. I think we need to right our schools physically. It takes money.”

The School Board did not reach a decision on any of these issues but asked the administration to present in March or April short-term solutions for the most pressing problems that could be implemented for the 2009-10 school year. The Board also decided to retain a consultant to assist in addressing many issues on a long-term basis, with the goal of implementing an overall plan in the fall of 2010.

The Willard Island

On Dec. 15, Board member Mary Rita Luecke proposed that the Board consider eliminating the Willard Island from Willard School’s attendance area as a way of addressing past “inequities.” The Willard Island is bounded by Church Street, Ashland Avenue, Emerson Street and Hovland Court and is north and northeast of Evanston Township High School. Although it is in the Second and Fifth Wards, it is part of the attendance area of Willard School, which is located in the northwest corner of Evanston.

While the boundaries have changed over the years, an area in the Second and Fifth Wards has been carved out and assigned to Willard’s attendance area since 1966, when the District adopted its desegregation plan. Under that plan, Foster School was closed as an attendance area school, and it became a magnet school – it provided a carrot to draw white children to the school and thereby desegregate it on a voluntary basis.

As a second part of the plan, all of the children who had attended Foster School were reassigned to new schools. A substantial part of the Foster attendance area was carved into seven districts and children in those districts were assigned to schools on the District’s periphery to desegregate those schools. The only non-contiguous district still remaining is the “Willard Island.” Since 1966, students have been bused from the “Willard Island” to Willard School to racially balance that school.

This year, there are 119 students in the Willard Island, 56 of whom attend Willard School, said Paul Brinson, the District’s chief information officer. The remaining 63 students attend magnet schools, schools that offer special programs or other schools through permissive transfers.

Eliminating the Willard Island/ A Fifth Ward School

Ms. Luecke said one reason she proposed that the Board consider redistricting the Willard Island was because “there has been a historical hurt that hasn’t been resolved and I think this would be a first step in helping to resolve that.” She said “elders in the community” have expressed their concerns about the effect the closing Foster School had on the neighborhood, particularly in the Fifth Ward.

She added, though, “What I don’t know is how the families who currently live in that area actually feel.

“I’ve heard really more from people who are no longer in the system.”

“One of the things we must do is talk to families who live in this area and to find out what their wishes are,” she said.

While not constituting a representative sample, four Willard parents who reside in the Willard Island said at the Jan. 6 meeting they wanted their children to stay at Willard. Two said they moved to the Willard Island so their children could attend Willard School.

Keith Terry asked Jerome Summers if eliminating the Willard Island would help to correct the historical hurt Mr. Summers had previously brought up when urging the Board to establish a new school in the Fifth Ward. Mr. Summers said, “When you have one community that buses every single kid for generations out of their community, it disintegrates that community, from my point of view.”

Referring to projections presented by Mr. Brinson that the District’s enrollment will increase by 405 students by 2013-14, Mr. Summers added, “It looks like we’re having a classroom crunch in the District as a whole. We’re talking about 300-400 kids – that’s a school’s worth of kids right there. We could build a green school [in the Fifth Ward]. …That’s something we should have on the table.”

“We know that we have enough space through all of our 17 buildings to accommodate the population of this community,” said Board member Andrew Pigozzi. “However, the population is not conveniently located, or people who live in certain areas are not willing to go to certain schools.”

He added, “Before we start going down a path of introducing a discussion of building a new building, we’ve got to get a better handle on what we’ve got and make sure what we have is functioning properly.”

If the District’s enrollment is increased by an additional 405 students, it would bring it to the level it was in 2003-04.

Impact on Diversity

Students in the Willard Island have historically been bused to Willard School to racially balance that school. Currently, Willard School is 68% white, 13% black, 12% Hispanic, and 7% other ethnic groups.

If students in the Willard Island were reassigned to a different school, Willard School would be 80% white, 4% black, 9% Hispanic, and 7% other ethnic groups.

Anne Viner, a Willard parent, said the school values and wants to maintain diversity. While saying the Board should seek input from parents who reside in the Willard Island, she added, “We really value our Willard Island children, we value all of our children. I want to express that all of our children benefit from that diversity in many different ways.”

Chris Tirres, a Willard parent residing in the Willard Island, said, “One of the things I love about Willard is embracing diversity…I really do think we do need to put the issue of school diversity first and foremost on the table.”

Willard parent Mirah Carmichael said, “I think it’s a bit troubling, yet touching, to hear parents talk about the need to fulfill their diversity needs – and these are white parents – by having students of color come into their school.”

She added, “There’s a cost to take kids out of their neighborhood schools. What is the purpose of moving kids around?”

Ms. Carmichael added that the proposal to establish a school in the Fifth Ward, “opens up the question, ‘are we ready to have a predominantly black school in Evanston?’ What about busing the kids who are white who would be in some of these schools that were overcrowded into this [the proposed Fifth Ward] school? We have to surface some of these issues. If it’s really about diversifying our students’ experience racially and economically in all these ways, are we ready to bus our kids out of their neighborhoods into other areas? I would like to see our conversation test some of those waters too and look at it through that lens.”

Overcrowding/Space Issues

Mr. Brinson said Willard School has 364 students this year, and it will need two additional classrooms next year to accommodate a projected enrollment of 389 students. Mr. Brinson said the enrollment is expected to grow to 451 by 2013-14.

A number of Willard parents said Willard was overcrowded when the TWI program was established at the school several years ago, and that the placement of the program at Willard has drawn students from other schools and contributed to overcrowding.

Ms. Luecke said, “It is painfully obvious there are severe space issues at that [Willard] school.” She added, “I think what has to be done is an honest assessment of whether there is space in that school to accommodate that [the TWI] program.

While reassigning students in the Willard Island to other schools would relieve overcrowding at Willard School, Mr. Brinson presented data which questioned whether Dewey, Orrington, Kingsley or Lincolnwood could accommodate additional students on a long-term basis. Mr. Brinson said:

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Dewey will have to convert space to accommodate its projected enrollment by 2010-11, and it will have an additional 94 students by 2013-14;

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Orrington may be short one classroom by 2011-12, and it will have an additional 29 students by 2013-14;

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Kingsley will need to convert space to provide an additional classroom by 2009-10, and it will have an additional 59 students by 2013-14;

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Lincolnwood currently has all available classrooms in use, and its enrollment is projected to be stable through 2013-14;

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Walker is projected to have 25 fewer students by 2013-14.

Mr. Pigozzi said he had walked through Willard on two occasions and acknowledged it had space issues that needed to be addressed. He said, based on data presented by Mr. Brinson, “We know we’re going to have issues at Dewey and Orrington and possibly Lincolnwood.”

Mr. Pigozzi said, “I would be a big proponent of adding on to several of our schools. I think they need it. I think a lot of our schools need a lot of work. I think we are just scratching the surface.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “We are sensitive to these issues.” He said the administration was actively considering ways to manage enrollment and space issues.

Walker School

Nancy McNamara, co-president of the PTA at Walker School, raised another issue. She said Walker School’s enrollment is impacted by the District’s magnet schools, both of which are in Walker’s attendance area. She said, “These magnet schools have become alternative neighborhood schools for residents within Walker’s attendance area.” She said “Each year the District chooses to enroll a larger number of Walker area children in the magnet schools, even though we pleaded with the District last year. This year 30 percent of Walker’s attendance area students are enrolled in magnet schools.”

Because many of Walker’s students attend the magnet schools, there are only two classrooms at certain grade levels, which has “resulted in overcrowding in many classrooms,” Ms. MacNamara said. As an example, she said this year there are two kindergarten classrooms, one with 24 students and the other with 23 students. She said if the District had not allowed so many students to enroll in the magnet schools, Walker would have been able to have three kindergarten classes with about 18 students per class.

Walker parent Carla Tarini suggested combining Walker and Bessie Rhodes into a multi-school campus, with one school serving K-3 grade levels and one serving 4-5 grade levels, and then accepting students from other schools to fill these schools.

She also suggested the Board consider whether the magnet schools could house the TWI program and whether King Lab magnet school could be used to house the African-Centered Curriculum and to serve students in the Fifth Ward.

The Open Issues/a Consultant

Mr. Pigozzi suggested the Board retain a consultant to look at the issues and to come up with suggestions.

Mr. Terry said, “I don’t like Andy’s suggestion.” He said the District did a building capacity report a year ago, and the Board already knew the “pressure points.” He said a consultant would take 12 months to study the issues, and it would put us “in analysis mode versus action.” He asked if there was another process the Board could employ to act more quickly. Many parents from Willard and Walker supported Mr. Terry’s comments.

Mr. Pigozzi defended his suggestion, saying a consultant would have the expertise of an urban planner and could look at all of the issues holistically.

“If we’re going to spend $100 million or $50 million, I want to spend it wisely,” Mr. Pigozzi said. “I think we all want to resolve this issue as quickly, but as intelligently, as we can.”

Dr. Murphy said some of the ideas proposed at the meeting included redistricting, changing the magnet school selection process, adding space to the schools, converting art or music rooms to general classrooms, moving the TWI program. “These are rather momentous questions that will be part of the generalized plan and approach that truly should govern the District for many years,” he said. He said a consultant would offer an “objective set of eyes” that would assist in addressing these issues.

Ms. Luecke added that a consultant could look at ways other communities resolve similar issues, which would inform the Board’s decision. She said there were four issues that had been simmering in the community for a number of years that the Board should consider: the Willard Island, the issues with Walker School, the purpose of the magnet schools, and the placement of the TWI program.

Ms. Bailey clarified that the Board would also address overcrowding and space issues, that the Board could be talking about redistricting, and that the discussion would extend to include the idea of creating a multi-school campus between Walker and Bessie Rhodes schools.

Mr. Terry said, “We don’t just represent Willard or Walker perspectives, but all 17 schools.” He cautioned, “If you were to take the 17 schools we have and assume that each is going to need at least $3 million, that number gets to around $51 million. If we’re really going to go down this path, it’s going to require some money. And I think you need to think about that.”

The Board asked the administration to present a proposal in March or April to address immediate problems on a short-term basis, with a goal of implementing the proposal at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year.

The Board also decided to retain a consultant to study and make suggestions concerning long-range issues. While the Board did not formally approve a list of issues that will be considered, based on the Board’s discussion, the issues could include whether to eliminate the Willard Island, whether to redistrict certain schools, whether to expand certain schools, the placement of the TWI program, the purpose and use of the magnet schools, the impact of the magnet schools on Walker School, whether to combine Walker and Bessie Rhodes schools into a multi-school campus, and possibly other issues.

Board president told the RoundTable the Board would need to define the issues and set some parameters when the consultant was retained. “We will have to give the consultant some idea of our thoughts, our priorities, our concerns,” she said. Ms. Erickson added the Board had a wide-ranging discussion on Jan. 6, and it could pull back and narrow the issues as the conversation continued. She said the Board would also be guided by the District’s new strategic plan, which is close to being finalized.

Board members said they would like to have a proposal to address issues on a long-term basis by January 2010, with a goal of implementing any changes in the 2010-2011 school year.