Foster School, virtually an all-Black school in 1966, was closed as a neighborhood school in 1967 as part of the District’s desegregation plan, and it was closed altogether in 1979.

As time passed, many in the community have recognized that these actions put the burden of busing to achieve integration primarily on Black students and that the lack of a neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward, the City’s historic Black community, has had an adverse impact on the community.

This article gives some background information on the District’s desegregation plan and the closing of Foster School. The article was published in the Evanston RoundTable Fall/Winter 2018 magazine.

The Decision to Desegregate the Schools

 In 1960, there were approximately 11,000 students in District 65’s schools, 22% of whom were Black.  At that time, most of the District’s elementary schools were segregated.  The percentage of Black 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 Black students attended the District’s nine other elementary schools.  The four junior high schools were closer to being racially balanced, with Black students comprising between about 15% and 25% of their student bodies.

The map below is the District 65 attendance-area map in 1966.

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

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 – including from the local chapter of the NAACP, which was prepared to file a lawsuit – the School Board in December of 1964 adopted a resolution of intent to desegregate and racially balance the District’s schools. The Board appointed a citizen advisory committee to develop a plan to implement this goal.  Two years later, the Board adopted a formal desegregation plan.

Organizations that supported the plan to desegregate included the local NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Jewish Women, churches, temples, school faculties as well as PTAs.  A number of neighborhood organizations were formed to oppose the 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. Many white students were bused to Foster School at their parents’ expense.

As a second part of the desegregation plan, all 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 Black 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 Black children in each school ranged from 17% to 25% of the student body at the school. Students transferred to different schools (not including 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 could walk to it.

The map below is the attendance-area map as of Sept. 1, 1967, reflecting the new attendance areas of the desegregation plan.

 “How Evanston, Illinois Integrated All of Its Schools,” a Jan. 24, 1972 report prepared by District 65 Superintendent Gregory Coffin and updated by Superintendent Joseph B. Porter, said the creation of an innovative educational program to draw White children to Foster School on a voluntary basis and the assignment of Black 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 Black children who were to be bused under the plan. The interviews were conducted after an intensive information campaign. Ninety-two percent responded favorably to this statement: “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.

The Degree of Integration

The School Board had hired Gregory Coffin as Superintendent the year before, 1966,  to implement the desegregation plan. His agenda included more than just desegregating the schools. He promoted an early version of a culturally-responsive curriculum and organized extensive professional development to prepare teachers to instruct students in integrated classrooms and provide them with anti-bias training. He initiated a review of textbooks in an effort to ensure the books represented the diversity of the students. He quickly hired more Black teachers and placed Black people in administrative positions.

While many people supported his agenda, some observers say that many people thought he was moving too fast.

One shortcoming of the desegregation plan was the lack of a plan for lunchtime. At the time, schools did not have cafeterias. White children walked home for lunch, but Black children who were bused to schools did not have that option. When the desegregation plan was put into effect, Black students at five of the schools ate sack lunches at card tables in segregated rooms. One and one-half months into the school year, the School Board allowed a limited number of White children to bring sack lunches to school.

This eventually expanded to a K-5 sack-lunch program at the schools that was supported minimally by the School Board and parent contributions. In April 1970 the District piloted a hot-lunch program at three schools, and in September 1970 it was expanded to all of the K-5 schools. 

The Level of Interest

After first broaching the issue in October 1968, the School Board decided on June 23, 1969, by a 4-3 vote to end Dr. Coffin’s contract at the end of the 1969-1970 school year. More than 50 people spoke at that meeting, which lasted two days.

The four-member majority expressed a commitment to the integration program but unhappiness, they said, with their relations with Supt. Coffin, and his alleged failure to attend to administrative details, fiscal mismanagement, his tendency to provide them with “last minute Board agenda items” and his brusque personality.

A portion of the community supported the decision. But many people in the community, including members of the Black community, opposed it. Dr. Coffin’s supporters felt he was moving ahead with truly integrating the schools and that he was being terminated because of that. In several ensuing meetings in July 1969 more than 1,000 people showed up to protest.

On July 14, 1969, the Board decided by a 4-3 vote that it would not reverse its decision to terminate Dr. Coffin after the school year but that it would not search for a new Superintendent until after the School Board elections in April 1970. Since two people who voted to terminate Dr. Coffin’s contract were up for re-election in April, this essentially meant that the people elected to the Board in the April 1970 election would decide whether to continue his tenure.

To give some perspective on the level of interest, the 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. 

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

The pro-Coffin slate lost by about 700 votes in this contentious election. The newly constituted Board quickly removed Mr.  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.”

In the weeks after the election, there were massive demonstrations throughout Evanston. Concerned Black parents organized a mass boycott by Black students, who were taken to one of five Freedom Schools that were set up for them. By one estimate, 40% of the District’s teachers and students participated in the boycott. White-owned businesses that were viewed as exploiting the Black community were boycotted.

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, Black 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.

Black parents were concerned about the findings and pushed the School Board to address the low achievement levels. The Board adopted a policy that defined integrated education as a system that is “organized to assist all students in acquiring those skills and understandings needed to succeed in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society.”

Superintendent Porter developed a plan for remedial interventions to boost Black students’ achievement levels. The Board set a goal that 80% of the District’s students would perform at or above average in reading and math on standardized tests.

The percentile ranks have improved for both groups since 1967, but a wide gap in achievement levels persists. A nationwide study conducted by Sean Reardon at Stanford University for the period 2009-2014 concluded that Black students in Evanston scored, on average, a little below the national average at eighth grade, but higher than 78% of Black students in the nation. White students scored at the top of the nation. 

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 Arts. 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. 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 Black versus White students being bused would have changed substantially.

At its Feb. 5, 1979, meeting, the Board decided by a 5-2 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. Family Focus is currently planning to sell the building. Members of the community are seeking to declare it a historic landmark.

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.

Supt. Hill 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 fewer 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, the magnet school.

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 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 10 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, has accumulated over time, leaving West-Central Evanston in a precarious and vulnerable position.”

Several Black 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.

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 the issue of a neighborhood school in this historically Black community.

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 10-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 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 Feb. 18, 2003, six members of the Board said they would not support establishing the school because of the District’s financial condition.

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.

On 2011, the School Board asked the community to approve a new school in the Fifth Ward and to provide funding for the school and technology in the classrooms. The referendum failed in a March 2012 election, with 8,020 persons (54.79 %) voting against the referendum and 6,619 (45.21 %) in support.

Sources for this article include: A report, “Integration in Evanston ,1967-71: A Longitudinal Evaluation,” (Aug. 1971), funded by the Rockefeller Foundation; a book titled “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); “Affirmative Integration: Evanston,” by  John E. Coons, 2 law & Society Review. 14 (1967); “Outlook Not So Good: The Struggle for Integration in Evanston, Illinois, 1966-71,” by Alison G. Reeves, Journal of Philosophy & History, Vol 64, no. 1 pages 165-179 (2014); “Friends Disappear, the Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston,” by Mary Barr (2014).

The RoundTable previously published articles on the desegregation of District 65 and the closing of Foster School, on June 19, 2002 and Oct. 25, 2011.  On Nov. 18, 2011,  the RoundTable published a lengthy editorial supporting the referendum for a new school in the Fifth Ward.

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...