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 “Citizens for a Better Evanston” (C4BE), a coalition of District 65 parents, educators, residents, community leaders and elected officials, has been formed to support District 65’s referendum on the March 20 ballot. The referendum asks voters to approve funding for a new K-5 school, additional classrooms and upgrades to Haven and Nichols middle schools and upgrades to King Lab and Bessie Rhodes magnet schools at a total cost of $48.2 million.  

The Committee is growing, with more than 60 working members, said Susan Hope Engel, one of four co-chairs of C4BE. The other co-chairs are Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, Natascha “Miah” Logan and Toly Walker. 

The purpose of C4BE is to “help get the word out,” said Ms. Engel. “We want to dialogue with people about the incredible impact this school referendum will bring to Evanston. We know from talking to friends, neighbors and colleagues that there’s just of lot of ideas and questions, so we want to get that dialogue going and really strongly advocate for the Better Schools Initiative.” 

The referendum projects, called the “Better Schools Initiative,” are about “making a positive impact on the whole community through one of our main institutions, and that’s District 65,” said Dr. Logan. “I think it’s pretty much universal to measure one’s community by how they treat their elders and their children. I think this effort that everyone is putting forth for our children speaks well for our community.” 

A Comprehensive Approach

 C4BE emphasizes that the Better Schools Initiative is a “comprehensive approach,” not just about establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road, which has been referred to as the “central core.” 

“This referendum, we all believe, is very forward thinking,” said Ms. Engel. “It answers several key issues that our District has been grappling with for a long time. Our schools need space. We need 21st Century technology. Several of our elementary schools are at capacity, Haven and Nichols are full and we are still busing hundreds of children out of their community, despite the District’s strategic commitment to neighborhood schools.” 

“The referendum is truly comprehensive. I think this initiative is an exciting opportunity for our entire community to take a giant step forward, together.” 

“The timeliness is impeccable,” said Ms. Logan. “You hear our president talking about education. The whole world is talking about their educational systems and how and where they need to improve them. … We’re being responsible citizens of our own City and our children. The Better Schools Initiative isn’t just about the Fifth Ward. It’s about our entire district. It’s about our children.”  

Dr. Logan added, “When you look at the $48.2 million that’s being allocated to the referendum, $20 million is for the new school, $28 million is for the improvements to the middle schools. So the dollars are clear. This referendum isn’t just for the new school.  This isn’t just about the Fifth Ward. It’s about great education. It’s about a better Evanston. 

The New School 

The Better Schools Initiative seeks funding to establish a new K-5 school in the City’s historic African American district. That area, the central core, has lacked a neighborhood school since Foster School was converted into a magnet school in 1967 as part of the District’s school desegregation plan and closed altogether in 1979. 

For the last 45 years hundreds of African American students have been bused each year from the central core to Kingsley, Lincolnwood, Orrington and Willard schools to desegregate those schools and/or because there was no longer a school in their neighborhood.  

“A new neighborhood school will drastically reduce busing for hundreds of students, address space needs at Lincolnwood, Willard and Orrington, bring economic development to all of Evanston and most importantly, bring dynamic new programs to our District,” says C4BE in a prepared statement. 

C4BE also says a neighborhood school will benefit students in the central core who have not had a neighborhood school for 45 years:

  • “A neighborhood school serves as a vital resource center for children and their families.
  • “It is a hub where students have access to a number of different services including after-school support, counseling, recreational activities and more.
  • “Families will have the opportunity to attend school functions easily, partner with teachers and staff, and develop the school relationships which build real community within a neighborhood.” 

“A neighborhood school is going to nurture a child,” said Ms. Logan. “I believe a new community school will foster the kind of progress we, as a town, need to implement.  Schools, rich in academic rigor and social support keep children on the right path. C4BE believes that a school in the Fifth Ward will be a great school.” 

“Succinctly,” Dr. Logan said, “it’s academic development and it’s community development.” 

Dr. Logan said the model of busing students to achieve desegregation is “outdated” and “backwards.” He said all of the hurdles in the Fifth Ward cannot all be attributed to the lack of a neighborhood school, “but I think that’s a big part of it. … A new school is not going to cure everything, but it’s a great beginning. It’s foundational.” 

“Those who are afraid of us going back to resegregating ourselves – my own personal take on that is this is actually passing the baton to move forward. We’re not trying to go back. We’re building on what we’ve learned about education, about what we know to be true for neighborhoods with strong schools. This is a positive move. We’re progressing.” 

“People in Evanston are well aware of how parts of our community have declined over the years and people have felt rather helpless from the outside on what to do,” said Ms. Engel. “I think this is really an exciting solution and it grows out of educating the children. It’s going to help us all. It will be good for the soul of Evanston.” 

 Middle School Initiatives 

The Better Schools Initiative will add eight classrooms each to Haven and Nichols middle schools to address projected increases in enrollment. It will do so by converting the existing science labs (which the District’s architect says are substandard) into general classrooms and building new state-of-the-art science labs that can be used for Science, Technology, Engineering and Science (STEM) instruction. The improvements will also add space to the common areas to accommodate increased student enrollment. 

The District also plans to upgrade the science instructional areas and provide safe entrances at Chute and King Lab, and to provide locker rooms at Timber Ridge. 

C4BE says the Better Schools Initiative will “relieve the pressing demands of high enrollment” at Haven and Nichols; it will bring STEM technology to Evanston so “we will keep pace with 21st Century learning by giving our students the best possible path to high school, college and career readiness”; and it will restore buildings that were built in 1901, 1911 and 1914. 

“Capacity, social justice and academic excellence may have been how we first came to agree strongly about a school in the central core,” said Ms. Engel. “But when you understand what the District is proposing for our middle schools, by building STEM labs and ensuring students have adequate learning space, that’s when thematically the goals begin to merge. 

“This referendum offers Evanston a real chance to step forward, a chance to bring 21st Century learning to our schools.” 

Reaching Out to the Community

 Ms. Logan said C4BE plans to make presentations to school PTAs, to hold at least two larger forums at the middle schools that will be open to the community, and to make presentations to civic organizations. 

“We want to make this very positive,” said Ms. Engel. “We want people to see how this is good for all of Evanston.”

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...