Screenshot of Henry Wilkins, founder of STEM School Evanston (RoundTable photo)

Heather Norborg, Manager of Lifelong Learning & Literacy at Evanston Public Library, introduced Part II of the series “Legacy of School Segregation, Visions for a Community School in the 5th Ward” on Thursday, May 20.

Six students of the Emerge Club at Evanston Township High School introduced the panelists and moderated the forum. The three panelists were Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignments at District 65; Henry Wilkins, founder of the non-profit organization STEM School Evanston; and Karen Danczak Lyons, Executive Director of EPL.   

Mr. Wilkins summarized STEM School Evanston’s vision for a new STEM school in the Fifth Ward. Ms. Smith said, “The goal is to have the school in the Fifth Ward.” She said, though, from District 65’s perspective, all options were on the table, and that community input would be a key factor. Ms. Lyons said EPL was interested in being a partner and supporting the mission of the school.

Emerge Club at ETHS

Six members of the Emerge Club moderated the forum. The club is open to all ninth through twelfth graders at ETHS. Members select projects that focus on social justice issues.

“Our Emerge project, which focuses on bringing a school to the Fifth Ward, was started last year by Emerge students, and has been sustained by this current group,” said Izzy McDermott, a junior at ETHS.

“I truly believe in supporting and putting a school in the Fifth Ward, and I think to do that we need to teach the community about it so that we can get back the school,” she said.

Another Emerge member, Maya Broughton, said “We are committed to making Evanston’s public school system more equitable and accessible to Black and Brown students in the Fifth Ward. They bore all the hardships of integration, while white students receive all the benefits. Establishing a school in the Fifth Ward will make education more readily accessible to historically marginalized students and help eliminate racial disparities in education.”

School District 65’s Role

Ms. Smith is overseeing a project to revise District 65’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 Fifth Ward.  

“It isn’t just about boundary lines. It isn’t just about the Fifth Ward school. It’s really kind of encompassing everything that we’re thinking about, like how students are assigned, what opportunities we have, what programs we offer, how are our schools broken up by grade, so the whole gamut.”

Ms. Smith said the District formed a Student Assignment Project Committee in April, composed of about 40 parents, educators, community leaders, union representatives, and District 65 Board members. She said, “We really want a diverse group and mindsets to really carry out this project.”

“With this group of people, we plan to make recommendations to the Board, hopefully next year, about possible new school boundaries, decreasing District 65’s structural deficit, creating equitable selection processes for magnet schools and programs, and a school for Fifth Ward families.”

Ms. Smith said the recommendations will be based on data, and that “this is really going to be community driven.” She said at the end of May there will be a survey open for students, families, caregivers, community members, and District 65 staff  to “gauge interest around what kind of options they’re looking for, what student assignment possibilities could look like in the future.”

After that information is gathered, she said, “If we don’t understand something, if we need more information, we plan to do focus groups that will be led by Northwestern faculty.”

She said the District will also obtain data through the Master Facilities Plan “which is also happening right now” and which will provide in-depth information about the schools, how much money it takes to support them, how many students can fit in the classrooms, and that data will help inform the decisions going forward.  

After the data is collected, Ms. Smith said the advisory committee will have some recommendations “that we plan to actually bring to the community before we bring them to the Board … Because again, it should be community driven. If there’s ideas that we thought are great and all the data supports, and the community hates, we may have to go back to the drawing board.

“There are obviously some things that are not negotiable around finances and things like that, but we really want to be as transparent as possible, and really get the community buy-in before we take the decision to the Board.”

Referring to 1995 and 2020 attendance area maps, Ms. Smith said, “We are still grounded in a desegregation model even today. We haven’t really shifted our boundary lines in 26 years.

“We need to revise some boundary lines,” Ms. Smith said. “We need to look at them at a minimum and determine if they are still what we need. We really need to think about equitable programs and services. Because again, right now, we’ve been putting programs in schools for racial balance reasons, not necessarily because that’s where those students live or that’s the school that could best serve them. We need to really think about how we’re going to decrease our structural deficit.”

Ms. Smith added that there has been no neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward since 1967. Since then, Black students have been bused to other schools to desegregate those schools, she said.  Currently, students in the Fifth Ward are assigned to five different attendance-area schools, and students attend every school in the District.

“The goal is to have the school in the Fifth Ward,” said Ms. Smith.

Current attendance-area map. The Central Core is south of the Canal, west of Ridge and north of Church Street.

STEM School Evanston’s Vision for the School

Mr.  Wilkins founded STEM School Evanston, which plans to establish a STEM community school in the Fifth Ward.

Mr. Wilkins summarized some of the history of the District’s desegregation plan in which Foster School was closed as a neighborhood school and turned into a magnet school in 1967 and was subsequently closed altogether in 1979. The history was covered in more detail in Part I of the series.

“Students are still bused across the District,” said Mr. Wilkins. “There’s an achievement gap or opportunity gap and the community’s integrity has been impacted. In terms of the busing, we know the numbers, we know that the Black and Brown community bears the brunt of helping to integrate the schools. And they also have to travel further than any other demographic in Evanston. So, we need to fix this inequity.

“The vision is to open a public school located in Evanston’s central core where children excel via deep engagement in STEM principles: science, technology, engineering and math. And they work together with the community and help to ensure high family involvement.”

“We also want to make it easier for parents to participate in their children’s experience,” Mr. Wilkins said. “We want to help raise self-esteem. We want to help build parent networks to improve after-school program access. We want to make it attractive to live in a central core. And lastly, we want to help improve the community’s integrity.”

Mr. Wilkins said STEM School Evanston is a Section 501(c)(3) organization and it has received grants totaling about $50,000 from the Evanston Community Foundation to do a feasibility study and it needs about $40,000 more to complete the study. As part of the process, he said the group wants to gather information from the community.

He said he thought the school would help to improve equity and the community’s integrity, that it would help improve family engagement and help improve children’s self-esteem. He said it could help improve the number of college graduates, help improve personal earnings of individuals, and help improve test scores, thus reducing the opportunity gap.

Q&A and Some Features of the Proposed STEM School

Mr. Wilkins focused on a few aspects of the proposed school in his opening remarks and touched on others in response to questions. Ms. Smith gave the District’s current perspective on some of potential features, mostly saying that from the District’s current perspective, everything was on the table and that it would be determined by community input.

Will it be a Private School, a District 65 School or a Charter School?

Mr. Wilkins said the school was not intended to be a private school or a charter school. “It’s intended to be a District 65 School,” he said. “The plan is essentially for us to privately fund the building itself, with the expectation that District 65 runs, operates the school.”

Mr. Smith said some of possible sites for the school have been explored. “We do have some leading candidates of location options. And they’re all in the Fifth Ward,” he said. He did not identify any of the potential sites.


Mr. Wilkins said, “There’s a high demand for STEM careers; there’s about a million job opportunities out there.” He added that the U.S. is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to math and science.

“The other thing that’s attractive about STEM is it all offers versatility,” added Mr. Wilkins. “You don’t necessarily have to major in a STEM field to be excited about learning. Kids who go through STEM programming are excited about learning. They’re excited about going to school. We feel like this is a good foundation, no matter what career path you choose.”

When asked why not a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) school, Mr. Wilkins said, “We actually support the arts. The thinking was that King Arts school is an arts focus school, and the thought was we needed to offer something that the School District doesn’t have. … We do believe, though, that art should be a part of the school curriculum, and we definitely support it.”

Ms. Smith said when District 65 started to look at establishing a school in the Fifth Ward, it was a no brainer to work with Mr. Wilkins. She added, “Unfortunately, if every Fifth Ward resident is like, we don’t want STEM, we’re back at the drawing board. And Henry [Wilkins] is good with that. He knows that we support him 100%. But if we hear something different, it’s really going to be about the community effort.

“But I can’t imagine that there’s a lot of people who don’t want something that’s going to obviously support them in the future. What that looks like, where it is, how it rolls out, will really, really be based on how our community responds to the survey. It will be based on the Master Facility Plan and data that we have.”

Why K-8 and a Magnet?

Mr. Wilkins said STEM School Evanston thought a new school in the Fifth Ward should be a K through 8, magnet school, with a priority for students and families who live in the Fifth Ward.  He said that priority should be given so the school serves the families that it is intended to serve.

He added that there’s “actually gentrification going on,” in the Fifth Ward, and “my personal belief is that the gentrification could be sped up if you make it a neighborhood school.

“So the thinking is that it would be similar to King Arts Lab, where you prioritize seats for Fifth Ward families, you know, say it’s 50, 60%, whatever that number is, to make sure that families that want to send their kids to the school have an opportunity to.

“We do recognize there are folks that are in the Fifth Ward that are fine with continuing to be bused. They have relationships with folks at the schools they are at, they’re close to graduating.” He said he talked to someone who did a survey in 2012 and they found that one-third of the residents were not in favor of establishing a school in the neighborhood. “So, we know that there’s some folks that aren’t going to want it, but our intent is to serve the folks who do want it.”

He added that a magnet school could be open longer, have a culturally responsive pedagogy, and have more flexibility with the curriculum.

Ms. Smith said she knew there was some support for a K-8 model, and that it has been popular at the District’s magnet schools. She said, “At this point all the models are on the table.”

Ms. Smith said, “I think one of the questions kind of plaguing our committee is does a K-8 model make sense? Is it a magnet? Does that make sense? Or is it a neighborhood school? And so, this isn’t really about if we’re going to get a Fifth Ward [school]. It’s like the how, and what makes sense?”

She said the surveys include a lot of questions about desirable school models, and what kind of school would you like?

Ms. Smith added that the District can make policy to ensure that “we have achieved the equity that we are desiring, and specifically making sure the unintended consequence isn’t that that whole neighborhood is gentrified, and we open the school and it’s not for the people who actually had the suffering.”

Ms. Smith said, “I just have to keep reiterating everything is on the table. The goal is to have a school in the Fifth Ward.” She said, “I can’t stress enough the survey, the survey, the survey, a lot of the data we’re going to use is going to come from there. The goal is to have the school in the Fifth Ward.”

Why a Community School Model?

A Community School Model integrates education, social services, health and community engagement, and the school is open all day, on evenings and weekends. District 65 implemented the community school model at Chute Middle School on a pilot basis some seven or eight years ago.

Mr. Wilkins said the concept is that the STEM school would partner with McGaw Y, Family Focus, Northwestern University, the Evanston Public Library, and other organizations which could provide programming before school, after school, and on weekends.

“We think that this is good for the whole child, not just learning from nine to three, but also learning before school and after school,” said Mr. Wilkins.

Will the School Have Diversity?

Mr. Wilkins said 41.5% of the population in the Fifth Ward was Black in 2010. And that number will probably decrease. The Hispanic/Latinx population was 14.4% in 2010, and that percentage will probably increase. The white population was 35.3% and that percentage will probably increase. If you take the current percentages, the school will be very diverse, he said.

The other belief is that if the school is a magnet school and 50 to 60% of the slots are reserved for residents, and the remaining slots are opened up for people outside the Fifth Ward, the school would still be diverse.  

How Avoid a Referendum?

Mr. Wilkins said, “The plan is essentially for us to privately fund the building itself, with the expectation that District 65 runs, operates the school.”

He said this is currently the thinking of STEM School Evanston.

Mr. Wilkins said, “I’m a part of the Student Assignment Committee. They might have a different vision. They may have a different plan for how they think they can fiscally, responsibly open a school in the Fifth Ward.”

Ms. Smith said that District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, the District’s team and the Student Advisory Committee may come up with a variety of options on how to fund the school.

Mr. Wilkins added that people’s views have changed since the 2012 Referendum on whether to fund and establish a new school in the Fifth Ward. “I think there’s definitely a recognition it’s unfair to expect the diversity burdens to fall on the Black and Brown children.”

EPL Is Willing to Partner

Karen Danczak Lyons, EPL Executive Director, said the “Evanston Public Library is not your traditional passive library. … We really view our work as a community builder, and a community support center and a way to engage and support families and our partners. But we’re also viewing our work very intentionally, with great focus around equity and racial equity.”

She said the library has been exploring with Mr. Wilkins what the library could do to support a Fifth Ward school. By way of example, she said EPL had partnered with the City’s recreation department in putting a library branch in the Robert Crown Center. The Chicago Public Library has established libraries in partnership with a school and an early learning center in Chicago.

Ms. Lyons said, “There are opportunities to really leverage what we’re doing together in order to make the best use of the space before, during, and after school.  … We’re so excited to be part of this conversation with Henry [Wilkins], with District 65 and with all of you and imagine what’s possible.”

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...

One reply on “Legacy of School Segregation, Part II, Visions for a Community School in the Fifth Ward”

  1. t would be incredibly problematic for the Board to essentially construct a new school without holding a referendum as required by state law. They are quite clear that the gambit they are playing will involve Wilkins’ private entity to acquire property and then lease it to the school district, thus doing an end-around the public.

    As the article discussed there is very little appetite for opening a new school, as indicated by the 2012 referendum. That referendum failed dramatically. Although it won support in the fifth ward, it is clear that most of the residents were apathetic as most voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot. In fact, the ward was tied with the 1st ward (interestingly, the other ward that doesn’t have a school) for having the worst turnout in that election. Turnout was 23% compared to 30% city-wide.

    Of the 3526 registered voters in ward 5, only 881 voted to support the school.

    Popular support just isn’t there. Even in the Ward!

    Given the budget situation a new school should be considered only in conjunction with enrollment projections. Given the fact that enrollment projections are expected to decline and the administration has discussed closing schools, signing a lease with a unaccountable private organization seems highly problematic and irresponsible.

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