An ad hoc District 65 “New School Academic Committee” met on Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 to brainstorm ideas for an educational program for the proposed new school in the triangular area between the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street, referred to as the “central core.”  The committee was composed of District 65 administrators, principals, teachers, two School Board members and several community members and university professors.

At the Nov. 7 School Board meeting, Superintendent Hardy Murphy reported on those meetings. “We talked about teacher commitment, how to engage and motivate students,” he said. “We talked about a full-service wrap-around community school model where all of the support mechanisms that are called a ‘safety net’ in the community would be in place.

“But we also understood that we needed to have a school that had unique and distinctive educational experience so that it would, while serving to be a building block for a new sense of community in the central core, at the same time have the kind of pull that it would be an attractive and meaningful schooling experience for parents and students across the District.

“We want to make sure this would be very different than anything we’ve experienced before.”

While the New School Committee’s proposal in September was to create what would over time be a mandatory attendance area for the new school, the thinking has evolved to include alternatives of creating an “overlay district” for the school, or an “optional attendance area,” or a magnet school in the central core. These options would provide students in the central core a choice of attending the new school or their current school and perhaps open up the school to other students in the District, with a certain percentage of the slots in the school being set aside for students in the central core.

Minutes of the Academic Committee’s meetings reflect that Dr. Murphy told members of the committee that a need might exist for an “optional attendance area” for several reasons, including “concerns that 88% of students in the defined attendance area are on free and reduced-price lunch.” He added that a K-8 school with an optional attendance area  “could create something special that would energize the entire community.”

According to the information provided by the District, students in the central core are 93% minority (63% black and 30% Hispanic), and 88% low income (81% on free-lunch status and 7% on reduced-fee lunch status). While research shows that economic status does not determine academic achievement, high poverty schools present challenges not faced by other schools.

Ideas for an Educational Model

Dr. Murphy said the Academic Committee was presented with four models to use as prompts:

• A high-tech school, based on problem solving techniques and project-based learning.

• An “Arts for All” school, which uses music as a vehicle to develop habits of mind and approaches to engaged learning.

• A Kipp charter school, which defines ways to extend the school day and develop relationships with parents and students into the weekend and the hours after school.

• The Harlem Children’s Zone model which defines a community school with a full range of wrap-around services for the community. 

Dr. Murphy said the Academic Committee put many ideas on the table. “The objective was to create a school experience that would attract participation from parents across the District, generate support from across the community, and serve as a community builder for parents and students within the central core.” He said the administrators would take the ideas, refine them and take them to the community “so the community can weigh in on the features it thinks will be important for this school.”

Tracy Quattrocki, a School Board member and member of the Academic Committee, said, “I think for anyone interested in education it was really an exciting conversation to have, because we put no restrictions on  our dreaming for what would be an ideal school, and I found it so interesting to talk to teachers and hear their own ideas they generated from their classroom experience and that was eye- opening to me.”

She said, “There was a discussion about how to make this a community school … and what are the aspects that would have the dual draw – both for the neighborhood and the greater community, and we were trying to come up with some things like foreign language that might have more city-wide appeal, but would also benefit a neighborhood school. Writing – we had a number of those things that might have this dual characterization.”

She added, though, “I think it was a beginning, and I think as a Board we’re going to have to define more about the school before we go much further in the process because there will be certain defining characteristics because of governance, attendance area, all these other issues that the Board has to look at.”

Eileen Budde, a School Board member and a member of the Academic Committee, said there was a discussion of 10 to 15 supports “that you’d want to offer in a school that has a sufficient number of low-income kids.” She added that the school should be designed with a theme that would be attractive to the broader community.  “Whatever the theme is, and I think it has to be really compelling, because I believe we have to make this a school where we make it open to a broader range, that’s my personal opinion, so it has to be a compelling theme.”

The instructional themes discussed in small group discussions by the Academic Committee included a middle school with a focus on 21st-century issues; an inquiry-based school which everyone in the District would want to attend that focuses on college and career readiness; an inquiry-based model with a theme or themes that appeal to parents, such as performing arts, science, technology and math, music, foreign language, or a writing academy; and a college prep school with social justice in a global context as a focus. 

The small groups had various views on governance of the school, with one group favoring a charter school and two groups favoring a District school that could operate with the flexibility like a charter, perhaps without being subject to the limitations of the teachers’ contract.

Views also varied about the calendar, with one group favoring a year-round model, with 9 weeks on and 3 weeks off; two groups favoring longer school days and more school days; and the fourth group favoring a year-round model with longer school days.

When asked by Board member Richard Rykhus if the administration would fully frame the educational model by December (the time the Board would need to decide whether or not to put a referendum question on the ballot), Dr. Murphy offered a hypothetical model:

• “We could say this would have the features of a community school, a place where the lights would be on in the school deep into the evening hours and on the weekends, and it would be open and that services would be provided to parents and children in the community in a variety of ways to address a variety of needs.

• “It could be a year-round school, where it could have longer school days and a longer school year.” He said the intercessions (i.e, the three weeks off in the year-round model) could be filled with unique kinds of experiences for the students.

• As to structure and governance, he said, “We would be able to say K-5, K-8 or 6,7,8 school, and whether or not it’s going to be a magnet school or not. We may as well say it – that’s what we’d be talking about here.”

• “The only thing that would be missing,” Dr. Murphy continued, “would be the unique theme. Is it going to be a school that’s going to be like the ‘Arts for All’ school. Is it going to be a language school. Is it going to be a science, technology, engineering and math school.”

Ms. Quattrocki said, “I feel like, and I hope this is what we’re all talking about, that before we make any decision we want a school, we would define whether it is a magnet, charter, K-5, K-8, or 6-8. We have to make these decisions, because we need to figure out where the funding is coming from.”

Board president Katie Bailey agreed, saying, “We need as a Board to decide whether K-8; K-5 ; 6-7-8; charter; magnet; if it’s totally neighborhood; neighborhood with an overlay magnet. All that needs to be decided.

Ms. Quattrocki added, “I think we need to define much more clearly the type of community partnerships we’re going to rely on for this school, whether they be academic or other programs that we’re going to reach out and solidify, before we move forward, because that’s very critical.”

Jerome Summers said community partnerships could solidify over time.

“We’re all agreeing,” said Ms. Bailey.

Dr. Murphy said the administration would present information concerning what it takes to implement a charter school, the impact of a charter on the District’s budget, and best estimates of the cost to implement the education program proposed for the new school.

The Board is scheduled to continue its discussions of all the scenarios on the table, with the benefit of updated enrollment projections and additional information about costs on Nov. 14, and to reach some decisions on Nov. 21. Ms. Budde said she would like to see the Ad Hoc Budget Committee’s recommendations before making a decision.

The above chart shows that low-income students at School District 65 perform better than low-income students statewide. The chart shows the percentile rank of the average scale score of students on free or reduced-fee lunch at School District 65 and statewide on the 2011 ISATs. District 65 scale scores were taken from the District’s Accountability Report and a percentile rank for those scores was obtained from charts prepared by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The statewide percentile ranks were provided by Mr. Zavitkovsky.

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...