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Anger, resentment and hope erupted near the end of last week’s Fifth Ward meeting when the subject arose about establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward. Foster School, now the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus Building, was closed as an attendance-area school in the 1960s and converted to the Martin Luther King magnet school as part of a desegregation plan. The magnet school subsequently moved to its present site, formerly called Skiles Middle School, and the old Foster School was closed altogether in the 1970s.
At present, said District 65 School Board member Jerome Summers, there is no school in the Fifth Ward, and 600 children there are bused to District 65 schools in other neighborhoods. The District 65 School Board has formed a referendum committee, of which Mr. Summers is a member, to investigate putting a referendum question on the April 2012 ballot, seeking approval of funding for a school in the Fifth Ward. District officials say the 18-classroom school could be built on about one acre of the three-acre, District-owned Foster Field, adjacent to the Family Focus building.
Saying she was speaking only as a citizen and as the former chair of the Education Committee of the NAACP, Judith Treadway distributed information that offered talking points about a new school and its benefits to the West Side: reducing the overcrowding in attendance-area schools; creating a “home” school for the 600 children now bused to other schools; revitalizing economic development in the Fifth Ward; and attracting more families to the area.
Several people, only one of whom identified himself as a parent of school-age children, spoke about the possibility of a new school.
Some residents said they would like to see a new school in the area but objected to the District’s taking “the last bit of green space” in the area. “Can’t [the District] buy other vacant land?” one resident asked.
Mr. Summers said, “The District owns [Foster Field], and even though other property may seem viable, it would take more money and wheeling and dealing [to purchase additional land].”
One woman said, “My concern is this: Do we want a school in the Fifth Ward? Do we still want integration? I’ve never been for it. Are we willing to say we want a school?”
District 65 School Board member Bonnie Lockhart said, “There is a process [to getting the referendum question on the ballot] to be determined. The District will put together a timeline – you just can’t make a quick decision. This isn’t just about the Fifth Ward – it’s about the community.”
Madelyn Ducre said, “We’ve been trying to get a school for a long time. Don’t anybody tell me it takes a long time. I’m so tired of people trying to pacify me.”
Carliss Sutton said, “When this Ward becomes 55 percent white, you’ll get your school.”
The only parent of school-age children to speak said, “We moved to [the area] because we knew that our children would go to Willard and we knew it was an excellent school. … I see two things in [the NAACP] document – that a Fifth Ward school would help with economic issues and lessen overcrowding. What I’m not seeing is what kind of academic excellence there would be.” He said his comment reflected the views of about 60 Willard families who had gathered at BooCoo last year to discuss the future of the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program at Willard.
Mr. Summers said the curriculum at the prospective school would be the same District 65 curriculum taught in the other schools. He added, “Taking away a school can cause a community to disintegrate. What makes strong schools is the community. … I would risk one acre [of green space] to not bus 600 kids from the Fifth Ward every day.”
The District 65 School Board is expected to decide at a meeting in December the charge of the referendum committee to investigate the issue.