On July 21, the New School Referendum Committee of School District 65 held a forum at Fleetwood Jourdain Community Center to gather community input on a proposed new school in the Fifth Ward. The forum followed a regularly scheduled Fifth Ward meeting.
The Committee has decided to recommend that District 65 establish a new K-8 school within the attendance area of the old Foster School – which is essentially that portion of the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road. The Committee has concluded that a new school would help address the District’s projected need for additional classroom space and that it would provide children in that area of the Fifth Ward with a neighborhood school – a matter of social justice.
At the forum many residents supported the proposed new school in hopes of revitalizing a community that has been without a neighborhood school for more than 40 years. A few persons expressed concerns about redistricting and costs.
Impact on Students and Community
Under the District’s desegregation plan in 1967, Foster School, which was 99 percent African American, was closed as a neighborhood school and converted into a laboratory school offering innovative educational programs. It was designed as a magnet school – a carrot – to attract white students to the school and thereby desegregate it. In its first year, 650 students were accepted at the magnet school, 25% of whom were African American.
As a second part of the District’s desegregation plan, all of the students who had previously attended Foster School were reassigned to a new school. Some of the students were reassigned to schools within walking distance of their homes, but a substantial portion of the area around Foster School was carved into seven districts and children in those districts were assigned to one of the seven schools on the District’s periphery to desegregate those schools. Approximately 450 African American children were bused to schools under this plan.
The old Foster School was later closed altogether in 1979 as part of a series of school closings. Since 1967, more than 400 African American students have been bused each year from the Fifth Ward area to other schools in the District. Currently, students in the old Foster School attendance area are assigned to Willard, Lincolnwood, Kingsley and Orrington schools, and many attend Dewey, Oakton, Walker, Washington, Bessie Rhodes and King Lab.
As a result of the desegregation plan, many residents said, the Fifth Ward has been deprived of a neighborhood school for more than 40 years, students have been bused and disbursed to many different schools throughout the District, and this has negatively impacted the community.
Jerome Summers, a life-long resident of the Fifth Ward and co-chair of the Committee said disbursing and busing children to many different schools disintegrates a community. As an example, he said, “on my side of the street the black children go to Kingsley …and the Latino children go to Washington, Oakton and Willard…it disintegrates a community when children don’t know each other. No other community anywhere takes all its youngest children and separates them not only from their community but from each other and then calls it progress.”
Reverend Warren Smith said, “When we don’t have a school in the Fifth Ward … our families are not as healthy as they should be because they don’t have immediate access to all their resources that other communities have.”
Lonnie Wilson, who lived in the Fifth Ward when Foster School was open, said “Since Foster School closed; our community has gone [down]. The school pinned us together.”
Gabrielle Walker Aguilar, Fifth Ward resident and mother of three children who attend Washington School, said “My sons did not meet their neighbors until they joined the Chargers football team in Rogers Park. We all live in the same community but we don’t know each other. There’s something wrong with that!”
Some also talked about the long-term consequences the lack of a school has caused. Carlis B. Sutton, resident, said “We didn’t have the high dropout rate at ETHS. We didn’t have all the kids going to jail like we do now. Yes it makes a difference if we have a school in our community.”
Doria Johnson said she believes the lack of a school has led to violence and drug activity, and has tainted the hard work of the community’s ancestors. She said “I don’t want to see black kids dead out on the streets….Dope dealers feel comfortable selling drugs where our great-great grandmothers walked up and down so that they could wash toilets and buy homes over here. What secures neighborhoods in the United States of America are institutions like schools, churches.”
Those who argued a school in the Fifth Ward would strengthen their community emphasized the importance of schools and institutions as a foundation, a vision for the community. Reverend Mark Dennis of Second Baptist summed up these feelings when he said “’Where there is no vision, the people perish [Proverbs 29:28].’”
Impact on Parent Participation and Student Achievement
Community members also raised concerns that the lack of a neighborhood school has limited parent participation and has made it difficult for students to improve.
Cindy Levitt who recently moved from northwest Evanston to the Fifth Ward spoke about the privileges her children experienced going to Willard School.
“My kids, who are white obviously, got the benefit of the diversity of all of the children in this area being divided up and sent to Lincolnwood, Kingsley and Willard etc. It’s about time that people in this community are able to have a neighborhood school like my kids did.”
Ms. Levitt also said some parents in the Fifth Ward may feel uncomfortable going to PTA meetings at schools outside of their neighborhoods, and it is time for residents throughout Evanston to unite to speak up about the injustice the desegregation plan has caused students and parents in the Fifth Ward.
She said “In order for this community to thrive and be cohesive it’s essential that all of us – not just people here today – but people in my old neighborhood in northwest Evanston come together to say it is time; to say that this experiment did not work. It worked for some people – mainly my kids – but it didn’t work for some of the African American children who are still living in neighborhoods where they [and their parents] cannot go next door and meet their neighbor and go to the PTA.
“I remember sitting in people’s houses way-back-when, twenty-something years ago in the Fifth Ward saying ‘how is it that you don’t get as many people into the PTA meetings that my neighbors do?’ [It is] because they had a history of this desegregation project. They had their own emotional difficulty around being taken out of their neighborhood…It is time. We need to do it now.”
Jackie Mohammad, an Oakton parent, explained the differences between having a child attend a neighborhood school and a further school. “My own family has benefitted from having a school that we can walk to. Prior to that my children were bused to Lincoln where we were referred to as ‘the people across the tracks.’ They felt like we were outsiders in their community.”
Ms. Mohammad also lobbied for the African Centered Curriculum (ACC) at Oakton and spoke of the benefits. “When there is an ACC event at Oakton there are tons of parents showing up without being nudged or pulled. When there are general population meetings, it just seems like there is no sense of family…It is imperative that children in the Fifth Ward get a school so that they can experience something similar to what I have been able to experience.”
Mr. Sutton also said building a school in the Fifth Ward could address the achievement gap between African American and white students. He said, “There is a consistent gap in achievement with black students today. And this community would have an opportunity to eliminate this gap by giving us a chance again to take responsibility for our children and their learning.”
Some speakers said that residents of the Fifth Ward do not get equal resources for their tax dollars as persons who reside in an area that has a neighborhood school.
Mr. Sutton noted that the School Board has recently approved additions to Willard and Dewey Schools, and is currently considering major renovations at Lincoln School. He said there appears to be no cost too high when it comes to Willard, Dewey and Lincoln. Yet, there is “not a dime to this community.” He added, “I’m also very concerned that we also have a school that represents taxpayers who have been disenfranchised for 40 years. This is a moral obligation. Does each child have the right to fair, quality public education or do they have to be sent all over the community and disenfranchised?”
Rev. Dennis said “We [Evanston Pastor’s Fellowship] are amazed that the School District and the City have not been sued over an issue of unfair taxation. The City residents deserve the full extent of the use of all their tax dollars and to ask them not to be supportive or to ask them not to move forward and be quiet for another thirty, forty years is to say there is a system of inequity throughout the rest of this City.”
Looking ahead, Kristen White, who lives in the Fifth Ward and has worked in Chicago schools with high percentages of low-income families, said she hopes the District will devote the resources necessary to address the needs of students who will attend the new school, and who are not meeting standards, or may have IEPs (an Individualized Education Program for students with disabilities), or have limited proficiency in English.
Ms. White said she has heard from neighbors that the Fifth Ward “doesn’t get resources that other communities get” and fears “if a lot of students in other schools that are not meeting standards … are collapsed into one school, there is not going to be any skin in the game for the rest of the community to address the achievement gap – and address the fact that African American students have a disproportionally higher number of IEPs. And it is going to be a lot easier for the rest of Evanston to forget and say ‘they’re not in our school any more, so we don’t need to worry about it.’”
The District has been working to address the issues raised by Ms. White at other schools in the District. The Committee has decided to recommend that the District hold forums with the community to gather input on the curriculum and programs for the new school.
Concerns About Redistricting and Cost
Rich Sims who has two children at Dewey School where he volunteers said he was worried about redistricting and the possibility his children might have to leave their school two blocks away from home to go to the new school in another neighborhood. Mr. Summers responded that students who are already attending their neighborhood school have the right to continue. However, he said incoming kindergarten students, new students to the district and those going to middle school would go to the new school.
Jane Berkley raised a question about the cost. She said “No one questions whether or not this community needs a school, wants a school, [or] should have a school, I want it to happen in a way that’s going to succeed. I’m afraid a referendum asking people to find money they don’t have won’t [succeed], and I’m afraid of the harm that that will do.”
“Too Long is Too Long”
Discussions for a school in the Fifth Ward have taken place in 1992, 2002 and now in 2011. Many voiced their frustration about the ineffective efforts to put a school back in the ward.
Ms. Walker Aguilar, who attended a 2002 meeting, said “If we continue to sit in these rooms, we will continue to watch our children grow up, go to schools in other wards and other communities. And this discussion will happen over and over again.”
Rev. Dennis said he and the Evanston Pastor’s Fellowship will fully support the Committee as long as they refuse to give up and said “We will share our voices and find ways to let you know that too long is too long. This community deserves justice. It deserves fairness. And not to have a school in its own district since 1967 is too long. Make it happen.”
Elsie Liddell received shouts of cheer and agreement when she said, “Don’t talk it to death. Do something about it.” Many residents said they will rally, mobilize and use their political power to ensure that the Fifth Ward has a school.The Committee’s and School Board’s Next Steps
The New School Referendum Committee is scheduled to vote on its final report and recommendations on August 16, and to present its report to the School Board in September. If the School Board decides to proceed with the Committee’s recommendation to establish a new school, it may do so without a referendum (according to the District’s lawyers) if the District can pay for the new school without taxpayer money, if it uses a building formerly used for a school, or if it leases space for the school. If a new school is built using taxpayers’ money, then the school must be approved in a referendum, say the District’s lawyers. The next election is in March 2012.
Preliminary Results of Parent SurveySuperintendent Hardy Murphy gave a brief summary of the results of a telephone survey of parents who reside in the proposed attendance area of the recommended new school (see accompanying map). Dr. Murphy said of the 500 parents surveyed, 300 responded; and the survey generally showed that parents in the area were happy with the schools their children currently attend. As to whether parents would send their children to the new school, he said, “”Their replies seem to be ‘It depends on what kind of school it is, the features of the school, the quality of the education and the teachers there.’ Those are the general findings that we have so far from the survey of the parents in the area.””
Dr. Murphy said the full details of the survey would be available at a later time.