Tasked with proposing the formal building plan for the new Fifth Ward school, the District 65 Board of Education’s Student Assignment Project Committee (SAP) is scheduled to make its final recommendation on March 14. Various community factions are working simultaneously alongside District 65 to birth this decades-long vision: STEM School Evanston, Northwestern University and Fifth Ward Alderman Bobby Burns. 

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton described the four-pronged collaboration as “a truly collective approach” to designing a learning environment. 

“I’ve seen many communities … this is probably the fourth or fifth school [I’ve seen] built. But I have yet to see an approach where it was a campus idea where the community and multiple entities were investing in building [until now].”

The vision for the new Foster School has expanded greatly over time. What began more than two years ago as the STEM School Evanston initiative, a project spearheaded by Henry Wilkins, has now evolved into a much bigger and more complex project. Now called the Foster Campus Concept, the project is an investment in a new school and neighboring community centers such as the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center and Family Focus. It would potentially be funded through Fifth Ward TIF funds and through proposed fundraising from the STEM School Evanston.

Horton said that, in approaching the design for both the Fifth Ward school and campus idea, “We’ll put about three or four different scenarios on the table for the community to really chew and process. And then we’ll go over the next couple of months getting feedback from the different stakeholders in our Fifth Ward, for sure, but across the city around some of those ideas, and then we will take something to the board regarding the funding.”

The Board of Education makes the final choice on how District 65’s budget is used, and SAP is the 40-member committee made of District 65 parents, staff and community experts tasked with presenting the research and a recommendation to the Board on March 14.

History of funding efforts

There have been four failed attempts by various groups to open a school in the Fifth Ward since the closure of Foster School in the 1960s: in 1979, 1992, 2002 and 2012, the last of which involved a referendum on the ballot that election season. The efforts are well-documented in a 2021 RoundTable article. In early 2020, 15-year resident Henry Wilkins spearheaded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group called STEM School Evanston to devise a plan to privately fund a building for a K-8 magnet school. But that plan was scrapped in 2021 when the District identified an alternative funding source: using funds that would be available by getting rid of some busing. 

“We spend about a little over $4 million a year transporting students. About $2.3 to $2.5 million of that is spent to transport students out of the Fifth Ward to those other schools,” Horton said. Through a process called lease certificates, Horton explained, the district can pay for the school without raising taxes and without soliciting donors. The certificate allows the school district to reserve the unused $2 million each year in bus funds for the new school mortgage.

“The school will qualify for $37 million in bonds from the bank, and the city can pay back $2.3 to $2.5 million a year like a mortgage for a school.”

STEM School Evanston

Wilkins talked to the RoundTable about the modified role that STEM School Evanston should take, in light of the new method that the district has identified for funding a new Fifth Ward school.

The two-year-old nonprofit originally visualized a STEM-centered magnet school (science, technology, engineering and math) that would equip local children with the educational foundation necessary to pursue further education and employment in STEM career paths. Since the district will be in charge of curriculum selection for the proposed new school, STEM School Evanston has shifted the focus of its involvement with the project.

“We’re here to bring awareness and advocacy. We don’t see ourselves running anything, really,” Wilkins said. “So our job is to try to build support for and potentially raise funding for opportunities centered around STEM.” 

For example, Wilkins said that if there is an interest in developing a STEM lab or dome in the Family Focus building to enhance experiential learning, STEM School Evanston would help identify additional funding.

“Maybe there’s some private fundraising that we could do … or some grant money. [We’re] trying to find a revenue stream to pay for that. So we see ourselves trying to find a way to create this STEM opportunity on campus.”

After the district identified the funds from eliminating some busing and prompted STEM School Evanston to pivot its role in the process, Fifth Ward Alderman Burns told Wilkins, “Look, there’s a lot of work left to do in Evanston. And in particular, in this neighborhood in the Fifth Ward.” These conversations led to STEM School Evanston and Burns jumping into the campus model concept. 

Beyond that, Wilkins says STEM School Evanston’s role is to be determined. Wilkins sits on the district’s Student Assignment Committee and said he also leverages his influence there to contribute to the Fifth Ward vision. 

Most recently, STEM School used two grants totaling $50,000 from the Evanston Community Foundation, in addition to other contributions, to hire Equity Schools to conduct a feasibility study for a new school concept. Equity Schools is a research group based in Chicago that comes up with creative solutions to fund projects.

Wilkins describes Equity Schools as doing “a lot of work around trying to find ways to pay for things when people believe there isn’t a chance.” The organization has worked with a number of local schools, including Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, Cristo Rey in Chicago and Loyola Academy. Equity Schools’ forte, he continued, is finding unconventional ways to pay for new projects.

Northwestern University

STEM School Evanston also used its resources to apply for a Northwestern grant to fund a study titled “Amplifying Black Voices on Educational Equity in Evanston,” to fully engage Black Evanstonians in conversations about what educational justice could look like on the Fifth Ward campus and throughout Evanston.

“Educational redress isn’t just focused on a school in the Fifth Ward, it’s looking at the entire landscape of education across Evanston,” Wilkins said.

Since the campus concept encompasses a vision for the whole Fifth Ward and not solely the 25% of Evanston residents with school-aged children, Wilkins and his peers are researching what it would mean to have a community school that considers the needs of all-aged residents before and after the school day begins. 

kihana miraya ross, Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern, is the lead investigator for the Amplifying Black Voices study. 

ross has started individual conversations with Black residents and will conduct focus groups to get a sense of what Evanstonians think about education in their hometown more broadly.

“Oftentimes there may be research or work that’s done to get the opinions of people in Evanston,” ross said. “But it doesn’t mean that Black folks’ voices are being heard within those contexts.”

ross said that the results of her study will be used to “ameliorate racialized educational disparities” that might exist. This could mean providing additional academic support by increasing Black teachers and administrators, or providing that support by changing curriculum so that “Black folks feel seen and heard and what they’re learning.” 

She also aims to gain insight on larger questions such as the broad, structural changes that need to occur in order for education to be “what we need it to be for Black children,” ross said.

City of Evanston

Burns clarified that city staff is involved at this point and that he’s involved in his capacity as a Fifth Ward council member. Like STEM School Evanston, he is jumping into research. Burns wants to ensure sufficient community feedback into the process so that any renovations on Gibbs-Morrison and Fleetwood-Jourdain are “100% informed by people that currently use the spaces or have previously used the spaces.” 

Right now, Burns is currently working with city staff to draft a request for proposal, a citywide requisite for soliciting proposals from qualified contracting firms. “In this case, we’re looking for qualified professionals that can help with the community engagement process,” he said.

“We need to make sure that we’re reaching a part of our community that is hard to reach, either because they have inflexible work schedules or mobility challenges, or some other challenge that doesn’t allow them to participate at the ward meetings.”

The Fifth Ward has up to $100 million in TIF funds available to use over the next 23 years in the square block around Foster field. The West Evanston TIF, paired with the newly created “Five-Fifths” TIF – which was created with the intention of “leveraging additional federal rescue dollars to implement infrastructure improvements in the area around the Fifth Ward,” have a combined projected total of $83 to $89 million over the next two decades. Burns pointed out that the Five-Fifths TIF “has to be used in an area that has been historically overlooked for investment and opportunity.

“That money has to be used within the TIF boundaries. And both Fleetwood and Family Focus are both squarely within the Five-Fifths TIF boundary … this is an amazing opportunity because it’s an investment we have not seen in the Fifth Ward,” Burns said.

District 65

The Student Assignment Advisory Committee, which has been meeting since spring 2021, will be drawing up new school boundaries to accommodate the new Fifth Ward project, and some District 65 students will be redistributed across schools.

According to Horton, “There’s going to be some redistricting across the city, potentially, as well as some shifting of programs. So all of those shifts or any commitment to one particular area impacts the other areas that we’re targeting.”

Horton said that among the considerations before the district are potentially expanding the African Centered Curriculum program, putting English as Second Language programs in all schools, universal pre-K programming and maybe even putting STEM labs in other schools. 

“We’re looking at the city as a whole … There are a lot of needs across the city and across the district where we’ve had our most marginalized students impacted.”

Horton emphasized that all decisions to be made will be community-based, and says that the district is looking forward to leveraging data from the city and STEM School Evanston to finalize the decision on the new school building layout, the programming to be offered at all schools, what the new school curriculum should be and more. 

District 65 owns Foster Field already, but Horton says the district still pledges to be collaborative in its approach. “This is what partnership should look like,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of times people expect the school district to do it all. It’s very hard for us to carry that weight, to carry it exclusively.” 

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. This article lays out a financial path by which a school could be returned to the 5th ward at almost no cost, because the yearly bond payments would be almost totally covered by the yearly savings in an operational cost–the busing of 5th ward students to other schools, which would no longer need to happen. We need to do right by all our Evanston kids, and this idea could move us toward that. I personally would be happy to vote yes in a referendum on that. As for declining enrollment, a STEM school seems like exactly the kind of imaginative thinking that would attract parents to keeping their kids in Evanston schools. Let’s support this idea and see where it leads.

  2. It’s my understanding that Equity Schools that Wilkins mentions I. The article is no longer part of the project. Can RoundTable confirm?

  3. An appropriate question to ask before building yet another new school is why is there declining enrollment? Why are students leaving the schools we already have? I don’t think this is a matter of “ If we build it they will come”

  4. Woah, Wait a minute. So the board has just heard that the existing schools are in poor condition and that it will require $189 million to get EXISTING SCHOOLS up to speed? The board is currently only budgeting to pay $8 million over the next 5 years on capital improvements to the existing schools which are in poor condition. We are also expecting $26 million in budget deficits over the next five years as well as declining enrollments.

    So now the board wants to create $37 million more debt to finance a new school?

    There has NEVER been an argument made that going into more debt to build a new school while deferring maintenance on the district’s other school’s will actually help improve educational outcomes.

    I think the fact that the Board and Superintendent are trying to hatch out risky financial schemes to avoid bringing the issue to the voters should tell you all you need to know.

    Curiously, there is state money available to help pay for new construction of schools, but the state requires the District to go to the voters for a referendum in order to qualify for funding.

    Of course they know a referendum would fail and show how out of touch with the community they are.

  5. Had we not spend $53M on a skating rink this would be a slam dunk. Maybe instead of STEM we can teach them to skate…