At the District 65 School Board meeting On Feb. 8, Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignments at School District 65, laid out a process to revise the District’s student assignment system, with the goals of modernizing the structure of the system, establishing new school boundaries, establishing an equitable selection process for magnet schools and programs, and establishing a school in the 5th Ward.

One purpose of the project is to address “historical inequities that continue to impact our students of color and our most marginalized families.”

The plan is to present recommendations to the School Board in March 2022.

This project is proceeding at the same time as the District’s plan to address projected deficits mounting to $15 million by school year 2025-26 – if nothing is done to increase revenues of cut expenses. As part of that process, the District is planning to look at reducing its “footprint” and closing “underutilized buildings.” An article on that process is available here.


“District 65 is committed to improving educational outcomes for all children by eliminating racial predictability and inequalities in achievement,” said Ms. Smith. “To meet our aspirations of a more equitable School District, we must begin with the challenging conversations about where students attend school and how to make all schools high performing and desirable.

“Education is one of the most influential pillars in life and one we have the power to change for our most marginalized students. Often families look at our attendance area maps or consult with their realtor about living in the ‘good area’ of Evanston and inquire about the ‘good schools.’ We cannot be a community that stands for equity but measure schools’ ability to educate based on how many non students-of-color attend.”

One key point addressed in Ms. Smith’s presentation is the lack of a school in the Fifth Ward. Foster School which was 99% Black in the mid-1960s was closed as a neighborhood school as part of the District’s desegregation plan in 1967, and closed altogether in 1979. Since that time, more than 400 Black students have been bused each year from the Fifth Ward to other schools in the District.  

Students in the Fifth Ward are currently assigned to five different schools, and they actually attend every school in the District, said Ms. Smith.  

“Some of that,” she said “is due to the location where special education services are offered, and some due to where TWI programs and the African Centered Curriculum (ACC) program are located.

“And some frankly, is due to families who just have felt so much adversity in some of the schools that they are assigned to that they, bluntly, just refuse to attend. And then we’ve had to make considerations for them to feel safe and wanted in our District.”

Ms. Smith said, “Our permissive transfer process has morphed from being used to balance schools and for students with unique or specific educational needs, to a privileged passage of school choice. This further segregates our schools and continues to drive the inequities of school assignments.”

She said the placement of programs such as special education programs and the Two-Way Immersion program has also required many students to leave their attendance area school for another to participate in the programs.

Some History

Ms. Smith said, “I think it is really, really important to understand where we came from in order to determine where we are going – So, a little bit of a history lesson.”

In a memo presenting the plan, Ms. Smith relied on a 2010 article in the RoundTable regarding the District’s desegregation plan. The summary below draws on that article as well as other more recent and in-depth historical articles on the desegregation plan and the closing of Foster School which are available here and here.

The Desegregation Plan

In 1967, as part of a desegregation plan, Foster School, which was 99 percent Black, was closed as a neighborhood school and converted into a magnet school with innovative programs. Foster was desegregated by attracting white students to the school and thereby desegregating it.

In its first year, 650 students were accepted at the magnet school, about 75% of whom were white students. Many white students were bused to the school at their parents’ expense. About 25% of the students at the magnet school were Black students who lived in the neighborhood.

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 Black children were bused to schools under this plan.

A map of the attendance areas before the desegregation plan is below.

A map of the attendance areas determined as part of the desegregation plan is below.

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.”

One shortcoming of the desegregation plan was the lack of a plan for lunchtime. In addition, many people balked about how quickly the Superintendent was moving to implement an early version of a culturally responsive curriculum and a professional development program for teachers. To give some perspective on the level of interest, a 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.

A 1972 report prepared by District 65 Superintendent Gregory Coffin and updated by Superintendent Joseph B. Porter, said the plan 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.”

School Closings in the 1970s

In the 1970s, District 65 was faced with a declining student enrollment, and the School Board closed seven schools.

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.

Because the old Foster School building would no longer be used for a magnet school, many African American leaders urged that a neighborhood school be reestablished in the building. Options included closing Willard or Orrington schools and busing white children from those areas to a reestablished Foster School.

Instead, the Board decided to permanently close Foster School. Board members said that 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. In addition, reopening Foster School would have required two more school buses than the adopted plan.

On May 11, 1979, the Evanston Human Relations Commission issued a report. By closing Foster School, the report said, the District eliminated “a primary key-stone of Community integrity” that would leave “West-Central Evanston in a precarious and vulnerable position.” It would also eliminate any possibility for children in that area to walk to school and continue to place an “overwhelming burden of busing” on those children to desegregate Lincolnwood, Orrington and Willard schools.”

Black leaders were upset that Black children had to bear the burden of integration. Being bused to another neighborhood for school also made it difficult for parents to actively participate in the school and in their child’s education.

In the early 1990s, as enrollment increased, Kingsley and Timber Ridge schools were reopened, Timber Ridge (now known as Bessie Rhodes) as a magnet school. The Foster School building had been sold to Family Focus.

Past Efforts to Address the Issue

Over the years, several District 65 committees and the School Board itself have recognized there was an inequity.

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 the District could not afford to establish and operate the school.

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 the Fifth Ward.

In 2011, the School Board approved a referendum that 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.

A citizens committee is currently proposing to establish a school in the Fifth Ward as a means of reparations. An article on this proposal is available here.

The 60% Guideline and Racial Balancing

After the District desegregated its schools in 1967, it used various guidelines to racially its schools.  Some were based on guidelines established by the State. In 1985, the District adopted the 60% guideline, which took into account the State’s guidance, and provided that “no defined racial group shall exceed 60% of a school population.” 

The District used various methods to comply with the State guidelines and the 60% guideline. At times the District redrew school boundary lines for the dual purpose of relieving overcrowding in schools and meeting the 60% guideline. The District took race into account in deciding whether to admit students to a magnet school or to allow a permissive transfer. The guideline was taken into account at times in deciding where to place a program. An article discussing the guidelines and methods is available here.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the race of a particular student could not be considered in making a decision to place that particular student in a school program or school. After that decision, the District 65 School Board amended its policies to eliminate race as a factor to be considered in deciding whether to admit a particular student to a magnet school or to grant a permissive transfer.  

Reasons for Acting Now

On Feb. 8, Ms. Smith posed and then answered the question, “So why now? Why are we doing this now?“

First, she said, the Board’s Policies say the Superintendent is supposed to look at attendance lines annually, and to make recommendations to the Board.

Second, Ms. Smith said, “The equities are jarring. They are not new. A lot of this information people know already.

“And to Dr. Horton’s point, we are not just going to talk about equity and how to build an equitable education system, we’re going to do something about it.”

Ms. Smith said, “District 65 is committed to improving educational outcomes for all children by eliminating racial predictability and inequalities in achievement. To meet our aspirations of a more equitable School District, we must begin with the challenging conversations about where students attend school and how to make all schools high performing and desirable. Education is one of the most influential pillars in life, and one we have the power to change for our most marginalized students.

Ms. Smith said the Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA) conducted a study led by Dr. Nichole Pinkard for District 65 to understand the District’s transportation and COVID needs. “It’s no surprise that we have substantial financial challenges regarding transportation, but what we did find shocking was to learn that 5th ward students were not only bussed to the five assigned schools but to all District 65 schools.”

In addition, she said, NEERA’s study reflects that Wards 1 and 5 have no schools. Wards 2, 3, 8, and 9 have one school. Wards 4, 6 and 7 and the Skokie portion of District 65 each have two schools.

“We understand that this is a long-term project. But we really have to get around and rectify this perception of good and bad schools in the District, which we hear in my office a lot. We have to address our Fifth Ward students. And the fact that they attend every school in the District, what does that say about how we prioritize them?”

Ms. Smith added referring to the Sixth and Seventh Wards, “And, you know, we have the two wards that are the wealthiest in our District and have the most resources, have the most schools. So, there’s something that doesn’t sit right about that. And we need to address that.”

The four schools in the Sixth and Seventh Wards are Willard, Lincolnwood, Kingsley and Orrington. (A recent analysis by the District shows that the per pupil spending at Willard, Lincolnwood and Kingsley are the three lowest in the District.)

Ms. Smith added that the District will be doing a Master Facility Plan which will analyze the capacity and utilization of the schools, and will also be doing a Demographic Study that will assist in projecting student enrollment. The District’s enrollment is currently projected to decline by between 200-300 students in the next five years.

“What better time to talk about school location options and assignments?” asked Ms. Smith.

Another factor not mentioned by Ms. Smith is that the District is in the process of analyzing how to reduce projected deficits rising to $15 million by the 2015-2016 school year. As part of that process, the District is planning to look at reducing its “footprint” and closing “underutilized buildings.”

If the District plans or decides to close a school building as part of its budgeting process, it would be helpful information for the Student Assessment Advisory Committee.  

The Student Assessment Advisory Committee and the Process

The District will form a Student Assessment Advisory Committee to review the District’s Student Assignment System, said Ms. Smith. The Committee will consider how to “modernize the structure of the system and address historic inequities that continue to impact students of color across the District.”

“We are looking for 30 people who are passionate about school equity and believe that all students have a right to an equitable and quality education experience,” said Ms. Smith. The Committee will be composed of 30 people:

  • 10 District 65 educators and administrators
  • 10 representatives from the wards or alderpersons, community institutions, the City of Evanston, agencies serving youth, religious organizations, Northwestern University and Oakton, and Citizens for a Better Evanston
  • 10 District 65 parents and students

People may apply to serve on the Committee. The application is expected to be online on Feb. 15. A District working team will make the final selections of the people to serve on the Committee before spring break. Two School Board members will be on the Committee, said Ms. Smith.

The District plans to gather input from the community, parents and students through surveys, through Ward-specific town halls, and possibly community forums.

“We will be doing Ward-specific town halls, because we believe that we really need the input of our community, … so we have a very clear understanding and specificity about what families need and want in a school and community space,” said Ms. Smith.

The District also plans to have a landing page on the District’s website where people can post comments.

The District has built up a team of advisors.

Ms. Smith said, “The District has consulted with MGT to support a Master Facilities Plan launching this spring. … MGT will assess building and grounds conditions, educational suitability, technology readiness, enrollment projections models, and utilization levels.”

Hopefully, Ms. Smith said, the Master Facilities Plan will be completed in the Fall and help inform the work of the Student Assignment Advisory Committee.

“We also have a team from Northwestern University working under the Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA),” said Ms. Smith. Nichole Pinkard, Associate Professor, Learning Sciences, who conducted the transportations survey for the District, is on a planning team. Karen Smilowitz, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, is also on a planning team.

Ms. Smilowitz is “leading a group of engineers who developed an Interactive student assignment tool that can look at student assignments in various ways,” Ms. Smith said. The District will “use this tool to better understand our guiding principles, which will be developed by our Student Assignment Advisory Committee.”

Ms. Smith said, “The District contracted with Sagebird Consulting, led by Cassir R. Blausey, J.D. to guide us in our work. Ms. Blausey co-led the redesign of the Jefferson County Public Schools’ Student Assignment Plan.

The District has also formed a Planning Team, whose membership includes Devon Horton (Superintendent), Latarsha  Green (Deputy Superintendent), Kylie Klein (Director of Research, Accountability, & Data), Saranda Karpuzi (Registration), and Tania Margonza (Community Engagement Facilitator). The team also includes Dr. Pinkard and Ms. Smilowitz.

The Call to Action

Ms. Smith said, “I think there is a remarkable opportunity for us to right our wrongs and fix the inequities that we’ve had around education and student assignments in the District. Before we can then go forward and talk about other parts of this practice, we need to “reflect on our past in order to build a successful future. This work is going to be significant. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be challenging. But every parent wants the best for their child. And we can no longer prioritize some parents and some families and some students over others.

“As we really push to build an equitable system, we have to modernize the system. There are some really cool examples out there that we’ve been looking at.

“And we have to fix the inequitable structures that we have put in place, particularly for our Fifth Ward residents.

Ms. Smith is working with a team to develop and present the Student Assignment Plan to the School Board in March 2022.

School Board Comments

Members of the School Board voiced support for the plan.

Suni Kartha, who has advocated for years that the District take a look at redrawing attendance areas, said, “I was so thrilled to read this memo. I was so thrilled to see the presentation.”

Ms. Kartha said this was the “exact right time” to consider the plan when the pandemic has “exposed a lot of the inequities and what’s wrong. Instead of just going back and becoming complacent with how things were, because for some people that’s comfortable, we should take this as an opportunity to shake things up and to correct some wrong. So, I don’t think there could be better timing to have you having this conversation.”

Ms. Kartha asked if configurations other than K-5 and middle school model would be considered, such as K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.

Dr. Horton said, “Absolutely, we are open to all of it.”  

Sergio Hernandez said, “I’m excited for this work to happen.”

Joey Hailpern, “All of our schools should be great schools for all of our kids to go to, and everyone should be proud to be able to go to any one of them.” He asked what is the budget for the project.

Ms. Smith said they would have a better idea of the cost of a Master Facility Plan and Demographic Studies in the next few months.

Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan said she wanted to echo the perspective of Ms. Kartha. “I think many people knew lots of things were not working before this pandemic. But we have an opportunity that more people are seeing what’s not working. And I just, I can’t imagine us deciding that we should go back to a way that was failing kids, where we have an opportunity to reimagine a path forward. So, I’m really excited because I think this is a critical piece to every kid having what they need at a neighborhood school and having program alignment. And it’s really, really repairing a lot of harm that’s been done in our in community.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “We are pursuing a vision, and equity is the umbrella for that vision and reducing harm in investing in folks who have historically not been invested in or historically have been underestimated is what we are seeking to repair. And that is woven through everything that we are doing.”

Rebeca Mendoza said that limiting the advisory panel to 30 people might be challenging. She said it was important to ensure there is a good representation of attendance areas and wards.

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...

2 replies on “School District 65 to Consider New Assignment System, New School Boundaries, New School in Fifth Ward”

  1. Thanks for the detailed report. I have a some questions:

    1.) What is the driver of the expected decline in enrollment in D65? Does the analysis show this? Could be because Evanston is losing population, fewer families are moving to Evanston, or more families are electing to send their children to private schools. I would think Evanston would WANT to be a DESIRABLE place for families to move to and attend schools. If that’s not the case, I’d ask why. It could also be COVID-related in that with Evanston schools all remote, families are re-considering their options.

    2.) How do the Black and Latinx student achievement figures compare to similar cohorts in other school districts across the state? I never see this mentioned. Getting the most out of every student should be the goal and certainly those students likely need extra support and resources, but the proper benchmarks should be used. If Black and Latinx students came from the exact same income and educational levels as other races in Evanston, you’d expect them to perform the same.

    Unfortunately, due to systemic issues in our country much beyond the reach of Evanston, this is not the case and thus there is a gap which is driven based on non-race factors. I don’t fully understand if, for example, White and Asian student achieve declined 10 points while Black and Latinx student achievement stayed stagnant that would be considered a huge success by the Board because it reduced the achievement gap. Shouldn’t we want all students to achieve their full potential while ALSO understanding differences in background and opportunities and thus perhaps providing additional support that could help those students? The only thing I see mentioned/reported is racial gaps within Evanston…not overall student achievement, not progress year-to-year, not comparisons to similar cohorts in other school districts.

    Many studies have shown that lower income students DO see LIFELONG benefits by being immersed with a certain percentage of high income cohorts (see HUD study that randomized Section 8 housing vouchers in Chicago, requiring certain people to live in an area that wasn’t majority poverty level). These individuals had higher level of college attainment and higher career earnings simply be being forced to live in a community that had certain residents of greater wealth. The converse is not true (wealthy students living with low-income residents do not achieve higher academic achievement and salary earnings than their counterparts), but some wealthy people CHOOSE Evanston because they see value in DIVERSITY. Certainly, education/career earnings aren’t everything and those coming from wealth and still choose to move to Evanston/enroll their children in public schools here clearly are ones that aren’t afraid of diversity and in fact EMBRACE it and pay higher property taxes to counter-balance lower income residents.

    3.) Geography. Does the location/closeness of a school impact student achievement? ETHS is located in the 2nd ward. Do 2nd ward high schoolers perform better? The Evanston ward map is honestly pretty random with shapes — it’s like a gerrymandered North Carolina congressional map. Many students in the 5th ward live closer to an elementary school (Kingsley in particular) than in other wards. Some students are assigned a school NOT in their ward even if one exists in that ward, so the fact that “there isn’t a school” in a random haphazard shape doesn’t seem to necessarily mean there isn’t a close nearby school while other students are actually located farther away. I certainly agree that that particular section of Evanston is largely assigned to more schools so they are split up more, but that’s also a function of the fact that it’s very centrally located so isn’t far from any one school.

    4.) Funding. Given the huge budget shortfall, did the Board indicate how they’d fund a new school? I thought it went for a referendum already and didn’t pass. It seems the majority of Evanstonians are not in favor of a Fifth Ward school because of the belief that it would lead to more segregation of the student bodies.

    Evanston is a great diverse city with a lot of amenities, beautiful homes and lakeshore, and mostly filled with great people. I truly think it’s a special place. I am a bit taken aback by some of the rhetoric and “us vs. them” mentality. If one was a white wealthy person, they could easily choose to live in another North Shore community if they did not value diversity. But they choose Evanston.

    Evanston attracts people who VALUE diversity and yet many of them are being demonized/ignored/having false motivations assigned to them because they simply want the best for their children, just like everyone else. You aren’t going to choose to live in Evanston and send your children to public schools if you aren’t a proponent of diversity and equity. Based on what you read in these meetings, you’d think Evanston is full of Trump supporters (and yet it’s 6%….).

    Of course, that’s not to suggest that there isn’t ANY racism/class privilege, but, by and large, Evanston attracts VERY liberal/progressive individuals that are on board with the cause but still want the best for their children and to not be viewed by others as trying to put others down. I think the Board could throw a bone every once a while to this still sizable contingent to say “we still care about your children and want them to also reach their potential.” And have programs/strategies that do that as well without undermining other important programs geared towards the Black community. Certainly, there could be additional resources to certain groups (and there already is as you can see with the spending per pupil despite property tax receipts being the opposite), while still saying we want all children to achieve their best. But that’s never the message, and I don’t understand why. I don’t think the goals in conflict with one another. It’s come to the point where Evanston seriously would move the beaches to the west part of town if they could in the name of equity, but of course, can’t move the lake….

    I still think Evanston is a great place and largely full of great people. I’m hopeful for the future of the city and hope that the School Board and its residents treat each other with RESPECT even if people have different perspectives/opinions on what to do. (Same goes for personal insults to the Board, which should not happen. Reverse should also not happen.) Thinking the worst in people is not a good thing. Trying to tear a certain group down because you believe that will lift up another is not a good thing. Teaching our children that EVERYONE deserves respect and we are all largely the same in the end should be the goal. Not that there are certain groups that are out to get them. Evanston is generally full of kind people and I’m sure the “not kind” people are evenly split among all genders, races, religions, backgrounds, incomes, etc. I also would like the Board to have set forward specific objective goals and see if they’re achieving them as a lot of the stuff they talk about doesn’t seem measurable and is more about feelings/attitudes.

    I wish the best to you all! And if somebody has a different opinion than me, THAT’S OKAY! I respect other opinions. We could all be more understanding of opposing viewpoints.

    1. Thank you for this. You raise excellent questions that I agree should be addressed by the district.

      The district should closely examine declining enrollment and why parents want to pull their kids out of D65. It can’t just be blamed on covid and the district should reflect on the exodus means.

      I also wonder whether the 5th ward school is primarily symbolic at this point, given that ward demographics have shifted considerably since 1967. The district should examine the updated census data to see where students live and whether school enrollment reflect those demographics. Based on population data, there seem to be many permissive transfers OUT of a couple of neighborhood schools. This would suggest that parents do not value proximity as much as they value educational outcomes. Outcomes that parents don’t believe they can get from their neighborhood school.

Comments are closed.