Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
For nearly a year, a committee of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 staff members, parents and community residents have been meeting to examine school attendance areas and discuss establishing a new school in the Fifth Ward.
On Feb. 27, the district went public for the first time with the two scenarios developed as part of the Student Assignment Project (SAP). Both scenarios would create a Fifth Ward school and close the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies. They would also result in less racially diverse schools.
In a Sunday Zoom webinar for community members, District 65 Director of Student Assignment Sarita Smith presented A and B scenarios. The first would involve building a K-8 school in the Fifth Ward. The second would create a K-5 school in the Fifth Ward and transition the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School into a traditional middle school.
The plans would not take effect prior to the 2024-2025 school year. “We do not expect to be moving anybody or shifting anyone anytime soon,” Smith said.
In scenario A, King Arts would expand its magnet offerings, which could include Two-Way Immersion (TWI) and Global Studies programming, and become the only District 65 K-8 magnet school. King Arts would need some repairs in order to accommodate additional students and staff, Smith said.
In scenario B, King Arts’ Global Studies programming would be infused into the district’s general curriculum. With both magnet schools closed, all students would be assigned to their neighborhood school – with an exception for students in the TWI English-Spanish program, who could attend a nearby school that offered the program.
Both scenarios recommend closing Bessie Rhodes, which is “at the end of its lifecycle,” according to District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton. Smith said that data gathered to develop the district’s Master Facilities Plan shows the building needs more than $10 million in repairs.
Additionally, Smith said, the enrollment at Bessie Rhodes has declined nearly 50% since the 2016-2017 school year. Walker Elementary School is directly across the street, so closing Bessie Rhodes wouldn’t prevent students from walking to a neighborhood school, she said.
By selling the Bessie Rhodes building and saving $2 million in transportation costs, the building of a Fifth Ward school would be cost-neutral, Smith said.
Smith added that families currently living in the Fifth Ward would have a choice whether their children would attend the new Fifth Ward school or the schools they are assigned to at present.
The schools within the district are very old, Smith said. “We are excited about having a new modern building in our district that could be designed for 21st [century] learning and is a sustainable school.”
Building a Fifth Ward school would address historic inequities caused by the closing of the Foster School in 1967, Smith said.
The committee is not currently recommending any specific programs at the Fifth Ward school, as community members should be the ones to decide what programs their school offers, said Smith.
Scenarios A and B also recommend shifting the Oakton Elementary School TWI program to Dawes Elementary School.
Shifting elementary school boundaries
The new elementary school boundaries for the district would be the same under both scenarios. A map, shared during the webinar, showed the new boundaries, outlined in black, against the current boundaries, shown in colorful blocks.
In both scenarios, the elementary attendance boundaries would be within one mile of students’ homes and are adjusted to accommodate the Fifth Ward school.
The attendance area for the new Fifth Ward school would follow boundary lines including McCormick Boulevard, Green Bay Road and Church Street.
Smith said that while the new proposed attendance areas for Orrington and Dewey schools may appear very large, there aren’t that many elementary-age students on the east side of the map, where Northwestern University and downtown Evanston are located.
Two middle school attendance area options
In developing the middle school boundary lines, the SAP committee tried not to change the attendance areas as dramatically, Smith said.
In scenario A, the Haven Middle School boundary would decrease due to the new Fifth Ward school and the Nichols attendance area would expand west.
Nichols, which is currently having some capacity challenges, would need some additional support and revamping in order to accommodate more students, Smith said.
In scenario B, the new King Arts middle school would absorb students currently assigned to Haven and Nichols, which would help reduce overcrowding, she said.
In scenario A, there would be no change to the middle school feeder pattern. In scenario B, the new Fifth Ward school and Dewey would be assigned to the King Arts middle school.
Questions on diversity, magnet representation, jobs
Following the Zoom presentation, 174 community members joined an interactive Thought Exchange, using the online tool to submit questions and comments.
Several attendees asked what the racial demographics of the schools would look like in each scenario.
Smith said the committee thought about this question a lot too. “The question really became … do we continue to bus our students for racial diversity or do we give them the option?”
Schools are currently mandated to maintain racial diversity, and demographics will change under these scenarios, Smith said. Areas that are less diverse will also have less diverse schools, she added.
In response to a later question about diversity, Horton said listening to families and what they prioritize, such as walkable schools, is more important than achieving a certain level of diversity.
“If diversity was the key, we wouldn’t have such a large achievement gap. We have one of the largest in the country,” Horton said.
Community members also asked if there were any Bessie Rhodes or King Arts parents on the SAP committee. Smith did not name the committee members, but said that there was magnet school representation on the panel.
Community members also asked whether teachers and staff members could lose their jobs due to the redistricting plan. Horton said this will not happen, and if there are any cuts, it will not be because of consolidating.
Next steps may lead to mid-March board vote
Community members are invited to submit concerns, thoughts or questions using a Google form on the SAP committee’s website, or by attending one of the remaining virtual webinars, which will be hosted at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, and 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 2.
The SAP committee will continue collecting community input until March 2. On March 7, the committee will share its proposal at the District 65 Curriculum & Policy Committee meeting.
The following week, the proposal is scheduled to go to the school board for a vote.
During the Thought Exchange, several meeting attendees asked about the timeline. One question read: “What is the rationale behind such a limited public consideration period?”
Horton said the decision has been a year in the making, and he said the committee has to move forward. He acknowledged that some community members have called the plan “rushed,” but said he disagrees with that characterization.
“We will get through this as a community, as a district,” Horton said. “We know this is not an easy conversation.”
The images in this story were updated after the SAP committee fixed an error involving the labeling of schools.