The District 65 Referendum/New School Committee voted 8-1 on June 16 to “support opening a new school.” Four members were absent. The motion was deliberately open-ended with the idea that the particulars would be filled in later. 

While the vote did not specify a location, Jean Luft summed up what appears to be the clear sentiment of the Committee, “I think the Committee is very committed to the students in the Fifth Ward. I think it has to serve students in that area.” 

The Need for a New School 

The Committee did not make findings to support its decision on June 16, but members of the Committee decided on March 24 that there was a need for “some” additional classroom space in the District. 

On May 3, District administrators estimated there would be a need for 2-4 classrooms at Lincolnwood School, 1-6 classrooms at Lincoln School, 6 classrooms at Haven Middle School, and 3-6 classrooms at Nichols Middle School – based on enrollment projections prepared by the District and  the mid-level projections prepared John Kasarda, a demographer retained by the District. The School Board is currently considering an expansion at Lincoln School. 

 In addition to space issues, it also appears that many members of the Committee feel there is a need to provide students in the Fifth Ward with a neighborhood school. 

Historically, the neighborhood school for students in the Fifth Ward was Foster School, which was converted to a magnet school in 1967 as part of the District’s desegregation plan. As part of that plan, African American students in the Foster School area were bused to other schools in the District to desegregate those schools. The school was closed altogether in 1979, and the magnet program was transferred to Martin Luther King Laboratory School.   

Jerome Summers, a member of the District 65 School Board and a co-chair of the Committee, defined the issue in an April 1 statement to the Committee. “Every single child with a minimum of 400-600 children each and every year are bused out, walked out, permissive transferred out, or otherwise removed from their Fifth Ward home and each other, for over forty years,” he said. “This has educational and social repercussions for the whole child and our whole City, not just the Fifth Ward. It is an unequal educational opportunity for hundreds of children from one community for decades.” 

Mr. Summers added that students on the same block in the Fifth Ward are bused to four or five different schools, which he said has had an impact on the neighborhood and splintered the community. 

Committee Discussion 

Drew Stover cast the sole “no” vote. He said he thought the main need for space in the District was at Lincoln Elementary School and at Haven and Nichols Middle Schools and that a new K-5 school in the core area would not address those needs. He added that a new school would require redistricting which he opposed and it would add to the District’s capital and operating costs at a time when the District was facing projected deficits.  

Ms. Luft said redistricting could be avoided by establishing a “magnet overlay” area – students in a designated area would have a choice to either attend the new school or to continue to attend their current assigned attendance-area school. “I think the school would fill up quickly,” she said. 

Addressing the issue about financing, Kirby Callam said if the community approved the new school in a referendum, it would provide the financing to build the new school. Mr. Stover responded a referendum would not address the issue of increased operating costs. 

In response to Mr. Stover’s point that the new school would not address the space needs at the middle school level, Katie Bailey, president of the School Board and co-chair of the Committee, said the new school could be a K-8 school. Because many students in the Fifth Ward attend Haven, a new school in the Fifth Ward could address the space needs at Haven. Mr. Stover said, though, a K-8 school in the core area would not address the space needs at Nichols. 

“There’s always going to be issues,” Ms. Bailey said, “But what is the right thing to do? If we can figure out what’s right to do, we can make it happen. 

“I feel really passionate that we need to move ahead and recognize there’s going to be people who are going to say, ‘what if we could do that, what if…’, and I used to be one of those people, and I’m not anymore. … We need to bring the passion to them.” 

Mr. Callam likewise said people in Evanston will need to see the passion to be swayed. 

Ms. Luft added anther twist, suggesting that the need at the elementary grade levels may be higher than projected by the District. She said that the preliminary enrollment numbers suggested that the kindergarten enrollment would be higher than projected this year. If so, it would be the second year in a row in which projected enrollments were on the low side. 

Susan Hope Engel said, “I think we’re all approaching this from different views.” She said she thought if there was a strong school in the Fifth Ward that improved student achievement “we’ll have more diversity in the high school.” 

Fleshing out the Details 

Ms. Bailey listed a number of things the Committee should consider to flesh out its recommendation: 

  • The location – While the focus is the Fifth Ward, a specific site has not been identified. Mr. Summers floated the idea of using an area east of the canal north of Bridge Street, and suggested the District could consider swapping land it owns just north of the administration building with MWRD. 
  • The enrollment – Some of the considerations include whether the new school would be a K-8 school, and whether there would be redistricting to establish an attendance area for the school or whether there would be a “magnet overlay” area.  
  • Governance – Whether the school would be a charter school. 
  • Curriculum – Some considerations include whether there would be a focus on a theme or program (e.g., science, or the African Centered Curriculum) and whether it would include a longer day and year.  
  • Financing – One issue is whether to pursue discussions with Richard R. Murray, who said he was confident he could come up a way to get the new school built without tax revenues. The cost of a new school and the increased operating costs are also issues. 

Committee members discussed ways to gather input from residents of the Fifth Ward concerning some of these issues, and decided it would gather input through a variety of ways including online blogs, a survey, a town hall meeting, and discussions in living rooms. 

Ms. Bailey said she would ask District administrators to work with ECRA, which conducted a survey for the District last year, to recommend how to proceed and collect data consistently.

The School Board is required to approve any recommendation of the Commitee.

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...