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We support establishing a K-5 or K-8 school in the “central core,” the triangular area bounded by the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street. We think a new school will help to address the projected space needs of the District. In addition, if it were designed as a K-8 magnet school with a percentage of the slots reserved for students in the central core and the remaining slots open to the balance of the District (as recently proposed by the administration), the school could go a long way toward resolving all of the projected space needs in the District. But our primary reason for supporting the new school is based on what has been referred to as “social justice.”
Our Support for a New School
The central core was once the attendance area for Foster School, which was converted to a magnet school as part of the District’s desegregation plan, implemented in 1967.
Under the desegregation plan, Foster School, which was 99 percent African American, was closed as a neighborhood school and converted into a magnet school with innovative programs to attract white students to the school and thereby desegregate it. In its first year, 650 students were accepted at the magnet school, 75 percent of whom were white.
As a second part of the desegregation plan, all of the students who had previously attended Foster School were reassigned to new schools. Some were reassigned to schools within walking distance of their homes. However, 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.
Foster School was 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 central core 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 well.
The District 65 New School Committee says in its recent report that students in the central core are “fragmented” across the District. This impedes building a school community in the central core. It impedes parental involvement and support.
As a result of these historical events, the central core has been deprived of a neighborhood school for more than 40 years, and many African American students have been bused and disbursed to many different schools throughout the District. The District’s New School Committee recommended establishing a new school in the central core as a matter of “social justice.” We agree.
By taking this stand, we do not in any way question the decision to desegregate the District’s schools. That was an important decision for this community, and we as many Evanstonians continue to value diversity in our schools. Forty years later, though, it is hard to justify busing hundreds of African American and Hispanic students out of the central core to Evanston’s north-end schools in order to diversify those schools – if the parents of those children would prefer to send their children to a school in their own neighborhood.
Some School Board members have expressed concerns about establishing a new school, including about the permanency of the solution, the cost, and whether a referendum would pass. The concerns are thoughtful. On balance, though, we come down on the side of favoring a new school.
One concern is that building a new school is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If viewed only from the perspective of addressing the District’s space needs, that may be correct. From a wider perspective that includes social justice, however, the problem has existed for 40 years and, in our view, it deserves a permanent solution.
Another concern is the cost. Given the District’s financial condition and projected deficits, this is a valid concern. Realistically, we think the only way the new school may be established and operate successfully is if voters approve both funding for the construction of the school in a referendum, and also approve a bump in operating expenses for the new school in a referendum. If the community does this, it solves the funding.
Another concern is that the Board should not approve a referendum that some say has no chance of success. We do not know how the community will vote on this issue, but we think there are many good people in this community and that the Board should exercise leadership and ask the community to support the funding.
The District’s architects have estimated the cost to construct a K-5 school with three classes per grade level at about $20 million and a K-8 school with three classes per grade level at about $30 million.
District administrators recently estimated that the cost of paying off $30 million in bonds over 30 years would be $55 per year for a household owning a home with a median valuation of $250,000. An additional amount would be necessary to fund operations. We think this is a worthwhile investment in our community’s children.
We recognize that approving a referendum on the new school is complicated by the fact that the District needs to make life/safety improvements and other upgrades to its schools and that it needs to address projected operating deficits. If the Board decides to approve a referendum for the new school, it will need to decide how to address these issues, including whether to fold them into the referendum and when to schedule the referendum.
Another concern is that the new school provide an educational program that will meet the needs of students in the central core. Under some scenarios, 90 percent of the students attending the new school might be from low-income households. An effective educational program may need to provide a year-around school, extended-day programs, wrap- around services, and partnerships with community groups. If the District cannot ensure that these types of services will be available, it may be a disservice to create a high-poverty school. If the District provides these services and partners with community and other groups to do so, it will provide an exciting opportunity for our students.
We have one important caveat. In an editorial in our Nov. 9 issue, we supported establishing a new school in the central core, but we opposed a “mandatory” attendance area for the new school, and we urged the Board to provide parents in the central core with a choice to attend the new school or their current school. This view is based on both policy and legal concerns, and also because parents in the central core have expressed a desire for choice. We adhere to that view. We strongly oppose a “mandatory” attendance area for a new school.