District 65 attendance-area map as of Sept. 1, 1967.For larger maps and additional maps, click on the link at the end of this article

On Sept. 12, School District 65’s New School Committee recommended that the District establish a new K-8 school in the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road. The proposed attendance area of the new school is roughly the attendance area of the old Foster School. This article provides a summary of the role of Foster School in the implementation of the District’s desegregation plan in 1967 and its closing in 1979. The RoundTable published an article, “A History of Foster School and Desegregation in District 65,” on June 19, 2002. This article updates and expands on that article.

  In 1960, there were approximately 11,000 students in District 65’s schools, 22% of whom were African American.  At that time, most of the District’s elementary schools were segregated.  The percentage of African American students at Foster School was 99%, at Dewey School – 66%, at Noyes and Central Schools – 33%, and at Haven, Miller and Washington Schools – 5% to 10%.  Few or no African American students attended the District’s nine other elementary schools.  The four junior high schools were closer to being racially balanced, with African Americans comprising between about 15% and 25% of their student bodies.

Overcrowding at Foster and Dewey schools led to desegregating some of the District’s schools in the early 1960’s.  In September 1962, the School Board authorized a voluntary transfer program to relieve over-crowding at Foster and Dewey schools.  By 1966, 450 African American students were bused on a voluntary basis to eight previously all white schools under this program.

Beginning in the early 1960s, some groups called for the District to desegregate its schools. In the fall of 1963, the School Board appointed a citizens’ committee to review “interracial relations” in the District. After a year of study – and 10 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education – the committee recommended that the District explore ways to desegregate its schools.

Under pressure from local groups, the School Board adopted a resolution of intent in December 1964 to desegregate and racially balance the District’s schools, and it appointed a citizen advisory committee to develop a plan to implement this goal.  Two years later, the Board adopted a formal desegregation plan.

The Desegregation Plan

Under the plan, Foster School was closed as a neighborhood school, becoming instead a laboratory school offering innovative educational programs for grades K-5.  The laboratory school, later named the Martin Luther King, Jr. Experimental Laboratory School, was open to the entire District and was designed as a magnet – a carrot – to draw white children to the school and thereby desegregate it.  In its first year, 650 students were accepted at King Lab, about 75% of whom were white students. Many white students were bused to Foster School at their parents’ expense.

As a second part of the desegregation plan, all of the children who had previously attended Foster School and 59% of the children who had previously attended Dewey School were reassigned to new schools.  Many of these children were assigned to a new school within walking distance of their home.  A substantial portion of the area around these schools, however, was carved into seven districts, and children in those districts were assigned to one of seven schools on the District’s periphery as their attendance area school. Approximately 450 African American children were bused to school under this plan at the District’s expense.

As a third part of the plan, all of the District’s school attendance areas were redrawn so that the enrollment of African American children in each school ranged from 17 to 25% of the student body at the school. Students transferred to different schools (not counting Foster or Dewey) as a result of this process represented 12% of the elementary school population, or about 660 students. Most students who were reassigned to a new school were assigned to a school within walking distance.

According to a report “How Evanston, Illinois Integrated All of Its Schools,” Jan. 24, 1972, prepared by Supt. Gregory Coffin and updated by Supt. Joseph B. Porter, the creation of an innovative educational program to draw white children to Foster school on a voluntary basis and the assignment of African American children to schools on the periphery of the District was not “totally fair.” The report said, however, “we were pragmatic, and to work in this case meant to be acceptable by the Board and the Community. Thus, the one-way busing.”

Before the desegregation plan was implemented, teams of surveyors conducted in-home interviews with the parents of the 450 African American children who were to be bused under the plan. The interviews were conducted after an intensive information campaign. Ninety-two percent responded favorably to the question, “If the cost of integrated education is busing, then I am willing to have my child bused.”

According to the Coffin report, this survey was proposed as a compromise to having a community-wide referendum on integrating the schools: “We felt that such a referendum would yield a negative vote, so after a vigorous debate, a compromise was reached.”  The desegregation plan was implemented in September 1967. Evanston was the first Northern city to desegregate all of its elementary schools.

Interest and Pushback

While many people and organizations supported the desegregation plan, a number of neighborhood organizations were formed to oppose it.

To give some perspective on the level of interest, a School Board election in April 1970 drew more than 26,000 voters, far in excess of the 3,000 who typically turned out for such elections.

Before the election, the School Board, by a 4 to 3 vote, extended Supt. Coffin’s contract by only one year, to June 1970. Supt. Coffin had overseen the implementation of the desegregation plan. The four-member majority expressed a commitment to the integration program, but unhappiness, they said, with their relations with Supt. Coffin, his failure to attend to administrative details, his tendency to provide them with “last minute Board agenda items,” and his brusque personality.

A portion of the community was happy with the one-year extension, and another portion upset. Many members of the black community supported Supt. Coffin’s efforts and protested the limited extension. The four-member majority of the School Board, two of whose terms were expiring, deferred reconsidering the limited nature of the extension until after the election. The election became a referendum on Supt. Coffin.

One slate of candidates for School Board was identified as pro-Coffin. Another slate, selected by a Caucus, was not supportive of Supt. Coffin. Bumper stickers for the two slates were “Keep Coffin,” and “Quality Education.” During the campaign both slates supported the desegregation plan, with the pro-Coffin slate initially defining a more vigorous implementation.

The slate of candidates who were not supportive of Supt. Coffin won by about 700 votes in a contentious election. The newly constituted Board removed Supt. Coffin as superintendent on April 17, but the Board publicly committed that no changes would be made in the vigor of the commitment to quality, integrated education. Franklin Gagen, president of the new Board, promptly announced that the School Board was pledged to “superior education in an integrated school community.”

Former Supt. Coffin gave his perspective about the election in a short memo he prepared in September 1998. After the schools were desegregated, he said, “A new set of challenges soon came into sharp focus. All schools needed some black teachers and administrators with whom the newly assigned black children could identify. The entire curriculum and all the books and materials needed to implement it had to be examined for racial bias and for an absence of recognition of minority contributions to history and society. Teachers and administrators had to be educated and trained to work in a multi-ethnic setting.

“However, not everyone looked favorably on the vigorous thrust toward total school ‘integration.’ Phrases like ‘lower standards,’ ‘personal favoritism,’ and ‘reverse discrimination,’ were being bruited about in some quarters.” Referring to the 1970 election, he said “this pro integration side ended up on the short end of a 51% to 49% vote.”

Impact on Achievement

In March 1968, the Rockefeller Foundation gave District 65 funds to conduct a three-year study to determine the effects of its desegregation plan.  The research was conducted jointly by District 65 and the Educational Testing Service.  An extensive report, issued in August 1971, concluded in part, “after desegregating all elementary schools, white pupils’ performance in standardized achievement tests remained constant.  Black pupils have made slightly greater gains in most subject areas.  Busing did not adversely affect black or white pupils….”

The report also reflected that in the fall of 1967, African American third- and eighth-graders scored on average at the 27th and 39th percentile ranks nationally in reading.  White third- and eighth-graders scored on average at the 64th and 76th percentile ranks.

The percentile ranks have improved for both groups since 1967, but a wide gap in achievement levels persists.  On the 2011 Illinois Standard Achievement Test, African American third- and eighth-graders scored on average at the 38th and 56th percentile ranks among Illinois students in reading. White third- and eighth-graders scored at the 82nd and 89th percentile ranks among Illinois students in reading.

School Closings and Redistricting in the 1970s

Student enrollment dropped from 10,860 students in 1967 to 8,413 in 1976 and to 7,061 in 1979.  Closing schools and simultaneously redrawing attendance areas in order to avoid overcrowding and maintain racial balance in the schools was a major challenge.

In September 1976, the District implemented a plan under which College Hill, Miller, and Noyes Schools were closed.  In addition, Skiles Middle School was closed as an attendance-area school and turned into a magnet school serving grades 6-8.

The District approved a second school closing plan in early 1979.  Under this plan, the Board decided to close Timber Ridge, Central and Kingsley schools and to transfer the King Lab School program to join the magnet school program for grades 6-8 that had been started at Skiles Middle school, now known as King Lab. Thus, the old Foster School building would no longer be used as a magnet school.

The Debate on Foster School

During the debate, Beverly Coker and Bennett Johnson, on behalf of a group called Coalition for Dignity in Evanston, and Hecky Powell, on behalf of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, urged that the old Foster School building be used as an attendance-area school. They and others said a neighborhood school should be reestablished in the Fifth Ward and that it was time for the burden of racial busing to be shared by white students. Ms. Coker suggested that Willard students be bused to Foster School to desegregate the school.

On January 30, 1979, the School Board asked Superintendent Joseph E. Hill to analyze two alternative configurations of schools to serve the northern part of Evanston, under which Foster school would be reestablished as an attendance area school and either Willard or Orrington school (in addition to Kingsley) closed down. Dr. Hill’s analysis showed that it would have been necessary to bus more students under these alternatives than if Foster School were closed, but the proportion of African American versus white students being bused would have changed substantially.

 At a Feb. 5, 1979 Board meeting, the Board decided by a five to two vote not to use Foster School as an attendance-area school, and the District subsequently sold the building. The Foster school building, now called the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building, is currently owned by Family Focus and used by Family Focus and other non-profit groups.

Reasons given by Board members for not reopening Foster School included: a) because of its size and location, a decision to reopen Foster School would have required the Board to reconsider its decisions about other school closings, particularly Dewey School, which the Board had decided to keep open; b) closing Willard or Orrington schools would have necessitated a more dramatic restructuring of attendance areas than closing Foster School, because Foster school had not been used as an attendance-area school since 1967; and c) reopening and integrating Foster School would have required two school buses more than under the adopted plan. 

On March 13, 1979, Supt. Hill presented a new attendance-area map drawn in light of all the school closings. He said 324 black students (or 25% of the black students in the District) and 668 white students (or 25% of white students in the District) would be transferred to different schools for the 1979-80 school year.

He also projected that a total of 555 elementary-school students would be bused because of distance under the adopted plan, 94 students more than in the prior year; and that 299 students would be bused for safety, 288 less than in the prior year. Busing for safety was projected to decline because the District planned to use more crossing guards. These figures did not include busing to King Lab.

One chart projected that 386 black elementary-school students (or 30% of all black students) and 169 non-black elementary-school students (or 6% of all non-black students) would be bused because of distance in 1979-80. Again these figures did not include busing to King Lab. According to data provided by the District, 96 black students and 321 non-black students were bused to King Lab magnet school in 1979-80.

HRC Weighs In

On May 11, 1979, the Evanston Human Relations Commission (HRC) issued a report in which it analyzed “the human relations effects” of permanently closing Foster School. By closing Foster School, the report said that the District eliminated “a primary keystone of Community integrity,” eliminated any possibility for children in that area to walk to school, and continued to place an “overwhelming burden of busing” on children in that area to desegregate Lincolnwood, Orrington and Willard schools.   

The HRC report analyzed busing statistics, focusing on the number of K-5 students bused because of distance (not including busing to King Lab, which was viewed as “voluntary busing”). The report said, “Currently a black child is four times as likely to be distance bused to school as a non-black child. Although black children constitute only one-third of the K-5 school population, over two-thirds of all distance-bused children are black. Blacks clearly bear a disproportionate share of the burden of busing which, bluntly put, is the burden of having no neighborhood school.”

The report said in its conclusion, “In 1967, the West-Central Area was the first in the District to lose a local attendance center, Foster School. This area’s children were sent to at least ten other schools and their parents to an equal number of PTAs. The Foster building was transformed into a district-wide experimental facility, and thus Evanston’s pioneering effort at voluntarily desegregated schools was launched. The key ingredients or prerequisite of the 1967 desegregation plan, however, was the partial destruction of the integrity of the West-Central Area. The effects of that violation, together with several other factors, have accumulated over time, leaving West-Central Evanston in a precarious and vulnerable position.”

Several African American parents, backed by the Evanston Chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint in federal court challenging the busing plan. District 65 prevailed in the suit.

Racially Balancing the Schools

When School District 65 redrew attendance areas in the 1970s, it attempted to racially balance the schools in accordance with a rule adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education that provided that the percentage of minority students in each school building should be within 15% of the percentage of minority students enrolled in the District.

When it came time to redraw attendance areas in 1985, the School Board adopted a guideline that “no defined racial group shall exceed 60% of a school population.”

For the next 22 years, the District attempted to adhere to the 60% guideline and to racially balance the schools by monitoring race in admitting students to the magnet schools and in granting permissive transfers, by redrawing attendance areas, by locating bilingual and other programs in certain schools in order to place students of a particular race in those schools.

In June 2007, the United States Supreme Court struck down policies of school districts in Seattle and Louisville that took a student’s race into account in deciding whether to admit the student to certain schools for the purpose of racially balancing the schools. The Court held that race could not be a factor in making a decision about an individual student.

After this decision, District 65’s attorney advised the School Board in a written opinion that it should no longer take a student’s race into account in deciding whether to admit a student to a magnet school or whether to grant a permissive transfer. The attorney advised, however, that the District could continue to take race into account in a general way, such as in drawing attendance areas with a general recognition of neighborhood demographics.

Some Data on Busing

Many children have been bused to school in District 65 since the 1960s. While busing was originated to relieve overcrowding at Foster and Dewey schools and then to implement a desegregation plan, busing has been provided for many years for an interrelated set of reasons, including to racially balance the schools; to provide transportation due to distance and for safety across major roads; and to provide transportation to the magnet schools, or to bilingual or special education programs located at certain schools, or for permissive transfers.

The community has periodically debated how to evaluate the equity of busing, and whether an equity analysis should only include distance busing, whether busing to the magnet schools (viewed as voluntary) should be included in the mix, and whether the comparison should be of students “eligible” for busing, rather than students actually bused. Some busing data at three points in time is below:

  • In 1990, a total of 701 black students, 784 white students, and 239 other students were bused to school. Excluding busing to King Lab and bilingual programs, 388 black students, 257 white students and 37 other students were bused because of distance.
  • In 2001, a total of 1,024 black students, 790 white students and 367 other students were bused to school. Excluding students bused to magnet schools, 636 African American students, 417 white students and 335 other students were bused to school.
  • For 2010, the District reported the number of students “eligible” to take the bus because of distance, safety, or program. A total of 866 black students, 838 white students, 610 Hispanic students, 176 Asian students, 154 multi-racial, and 23 other students were eligible to take the bus.

Since the desegregation plan was implemented in 1967, a very high percentage of African American students in the attendance area of the old Foster School have been bused to desegregate the north-end schools and because there is no longer a school in their neighborhood. Currently, K-5 students in that area are assigned to Willard, Lincolnwood, Kingsley and Orrington Schools.

Effects on Students and the Community

Many African American leaders have opposed busing students from the old Foster School area for more than 30 years. At a Board meeting in 2002, Mamie Smith, put it this way: “Anti-busing has always been a topic of conversation in the black community. This attitude was based on the concern that black children had to bear the burden of integration and that traveling outside of their community has made it difficult for parents to participate in the school and in their child’s education.”

School Board member Jerome Summers has more recently focused on another dimension:  that the lack of a neighborhood school has “fragmented” the community. While children in the attendance area of the old Foster School are currently assigned to the four K-5 schools in the north end, he points out that they attend 15 different schools in the District. Thus, he says, children on the same block attend many different schools and lack the cohesiveness of walking to school together.

Another issue raised by many persons focuses on the closing of Foster School. They say that a neighborhood school is an important institution to build community, to build parent networks, to develop parental support, to promote children’s self-esteem, to promote after-school activities. Some members of the African American community say the area surrounding the old Foster School has deteriorated as a result of not having a neighborhood school.

Past Efforts to Address the Issue

Several District 65 committees and the School Board itself have recognized on a number of occasions that there is a need to address this issue.

On May 5, 1992, the District’s Long Range Planning Committee presented a report that urged the Board to adopt a goal to close the achievement gap over a ten-year period, and it proposed strategies to do so. The LRPC also recommended a long-range plan to racially balance the schools. One recommendation was that any newly constructed school should be located in the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road.

Ten years later, in 2002, the School Board adopted a five-year strategic plan after obtaining community input. One strategy listed in the plan was to “Review the desirability and feasibility of establishing a school in the 5th Ward.”

In response to the strategic plan, the administration proposed leasing space from Family Focus and establishing a K-3 school at the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building (the old Foster School building). On Nov. 18, 2002, the Board approved by a 5-2 vote the concept of establishing the school , contingent on securing adequate financing and reaching an acceptable agreement with Family Focus or securing another site.  Two weeks after that vote, the District projected it would operate at deficits totaling $40 million over the next six years unless new revenues were found or programs cut; this included about $4 million in costs to establish and operate the proposed K-3 school through 2008-09.

On Feb. 18, 2003 six members of the Board said they would not support establishing the school because of the District’s financial condition. At its next meeting, the Board formally voted to table the effort.

After that, the Board decided to allocate 20% of new admissions in Timber Ridge (now Bessie Rhodes) magnet school to students in the area surrounding the old Foster School,  and to allocate 20% of new admissions in King Lab to students who lived within safe walking distance of that school. This was done to address, in part, the lack of a neighborhood school in these areas.

In 2009, the District adopted a second five-year strategic plan. That plan also recognized the special situation of students in the central core. It said in part, “Provide each child an opportunity to attend his/her neighborhood school or a school of choice, at the parent’s option, with special consideration for students who live in the 5th Ward attendance area.”

On Sept. 5, 2011, the District’s New School Committee recommended that the District establish a new school in an area that is essentially the attendance-area of the old Foster School (the Central Core). The Committee’s report found that more than 700 students currently attend schools outside their historical neighborhoods in the Central Core and that these students “are fragmented across the District as evidenced by the fact that students from the Central Core attend virtually every school in the District.”  

“The concern for those students who are unable to walk to a neighborhood school, have a neighborhood PTA and community center, or offer convenient opportunities for full parent participation in the academic success of their children became [an additional] consideration,” says the report.

Sources for this article include: A report, “Integration in Evanston ,1967-71: A Longitudinal Evaluation,” (Aug. 1971), funded by the Rockefeller Foundation; a book entitled “The District 65 Story;” a paper entitled “How Evanston, Illinois, Integrated All of Its Schools,” (Jan. 24, 1972), prepared by Supt. Gregory Coffin and updated by Supt. Joseph B. Porter; minutes of School Board meetings in 1979; Evanston Human Relations Commission, “Report on Human Relations Effects Of the Districtwide Educational Plan, as Adopted by School District 65”, (May 11, 1979); “Notes for Leadership Evanston,” prepared by Gregory Coffin (Sept. 28, 1998); an oral presentation of Joseph E. Hill to the Long Range Planning Committee in 1991; a report entitled “A Long Range Plan For Achieving And Maintaining Quality Integrated Education in Evanston/Skokie District 65”, (May 5, 1992); an article, “Evanston School Integration Controversy” by Jeremy Wilson (2003); interviews with Alice Kreiman and Rev. John Norwood in 2003; a book, “Perspectives in Black and White, Conflict and Accommodation in the Racially Diverse City of Evanston, Illinois,” by Michael Frank Miles (2008); “Evanston Skokie District 65 New School Committee Report to the Board of Education,” (Sept. 5, 2011); busing statistics provided by District 65.

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...