Having successfully navigated the path to zoning approval and made it through the gauntlet of neighborhood opposition, Evanston Township High School officials are on what may be the last leg in an arduous triathlon to establish an alternative school here: parental concern about the curriculum and services.

On Feb. 21, more than 20 parents attended a meeting at Evanston Township High School about the day school for special needs children that ETHS plans to open in the fall. The plan is to bring back to Evanston at least 20 and eventually more of the 40+ students who are educated out-of-district because ETHS does not at present offer suitable programing to meet their needs.

Several parents were reportedly not satisfied or comfortable with what they heard. One parent who attended the meeting contacted the RoundTable to voice her concerns about the apparent lack of a model for the day school and for the potential choice of Peter Nierman, Chief Medical Officer at Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, as a partner in shaping its clinical program.

At the Feb. 25 District 202 (ETHS) School Board meeting, Stephanie Kimmel, ETHS and District 65 alumna and parent of two children at Walker School, said she attended the Feb. 21 meeting. She also said, “While it is unlikely that my children would need placement outside of ETHS, one of my children has an IEP and I was interested to hear about the overall services. The impression I came away with is not positive. … First, where is the philosophy or vision about what needs the school will serve?… As Dr. [Lanée] Walls [Director of Special Education at ETHS] reported, special education is not a place, it’s a range of services to meet individual needs. I am concerned that ETHS is building a “place” without enough thought into the philosophy, the overall goals, who will be served, what services will be offered and by what qualified professionals. 

“I’m concerned that we did not hear any information about any reasons why this school will be better or different than having several self-contained classrooms within ETHS. 

“Second, … Where is the evidence base or the literature review which shows what an effective special education high school should look like? What are the key elements of success? … Third, I am concerned about having only four teachers for grades 9-12 who will teach the ETHS curriculum. It sounds like these kids will have a subpar educational experience – with limited electives, no art, no music, no computer classes, no foreign language. This doesn’t sound equitable to me. 

“Fourth, some of the students who will likely be placed at the school have current placements in therapeutic day schools where they are thriving. Why has the administration not met with parents to find out what is going well? Or with these schools to learn about their best practices?”

Ms. Kimmel said her “final concern” was about the choice of the medical team – a concern also expressed by the parent who contacted the RoundTable and, reportedly, by other parents who attended the Feb. 21 meeting.

“In short,” Ms. Kimmel concluded, “I came away with the impression that the rationale for the school must be financial. …  The community does not need to see pictures of the classrooms with cute orange and blue walls. The community needs to hear that you are invested in educational outcomes for all students – even those with complex learning and emotional or behavioral needs that can’t be met at ETHS, even if it costs more.” 

The RoundTable sent an email to Dr. Walls asking how ETHS is addressing those concerns. By email, Dr. Walls referred this reporter to the ETHS Communications Department.

The Communications Department responded by email: “The most current and up-to-date information regarding the ETHS Day School can be found in Board meeting reports and minutes (these are searchable on our website). As planning continues and additional details become available, the District will be sure to keep all stakeholders informed, including parents, students, and community members.”

History of the Plans for the Day School

Last year ETHS received City approval to establish a day school at 1233-35 Hartrey Ave., to bring back to Evanston and educate 20-40 students who now attend alternative schools out of the District.

High school officials have pointed out several benefit of ETHS’s having its own day – or alternative – school here. Returning the students to Evanston would reduce the travel time many of the students spend daily on buses – some, up to one-and-a-half hours – to travel to their school. It would also eliminate the tuition the District pays to have these children educated at out-of-district schools. The tuition for some students is $50,000 per year school officials have said.

Seeking zoning approval was a two-step process. First, the high school had to obtain a text amendment – that is, the City had to add educational institutions as a “special use” in industrial districts – the zoning in the district where 1233-35 Hartrey Ave. is located.

Special uses are permitted exceptions to the zoning code for a specific area. Each request for a special use must be considered by the Zoning Administrator and, in some cases, the Zoning Board of Appeals. City Council has the ultimate authority to approve or deny the request.

The high school obtained both a text amendment to permit educational institutions as special uses in that area and a special use permit to operate its day school there.

Neighbors objected to the establishment of the school; they also said they had no notice of the proposed zoning changes, because the notice of the meetings to consider the proposed changes had been published in the Chicago Sun-Times rather than in an Evanston newspaper. The City did not agree with the neighbors’ objections, and the zoning stands.

As originally posted, this story reported that the notice had been pubiished in the Chicago Tribune. Later it was learned that the notice had been published in the Sun-Times, and the change was posted on April 19, 2019. 

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...