District 65 plans to close Bessie Rhodes school in 2024. (Photo by Adina Keeling) Credit: Adina Keeling

More than 25 years have passed since Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has adjusted its school boundary lines.

That’s about to change, due to the work of the Student Assignment Planning (SAP) committee, a group of parents, district staff and community members looking at ways to change the district in hopes of improving equity. 

After presenting two potential plans – scenarios A and B – at a series of community events last week, Sarita Smith, director of student assignments, unveiled the selected option at the district’s Curriculum and Policy Committee meeting on March 7.

The plan, which Smith called “scenario A 2.0,” recommends closing the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies and opening a K-8 Fifth Ward school, one that also will house the Bessie Rhodes community. 

On March 14, this proposal is scheduled to go to the school board for a vote.

Scenario A 2.0 is a revised version of scenario A, with changes based on community feedback and discussions with educators at Bessie Rhodes and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School.

During the discussions, the Bessie Rhodes community expressed a strong desire to stay together, so the SAP committee altered its recommendation. With those changes, the Bessie Rhodes community, a group that includes educators and students and also all school-related programs, will move to the new Fifth Ward school, “as a magnet school within a school,” Smith said.

After speaking with educators at King Arts, the SAP committee learned that the magnet school may not be able to take on Bessie Rhodes’ programming, as scenario A recommended, because the school lacks the support and space for more programs.

The SAP committee decided not to make any decisions about programming now, and to wait until the committee members can meet with more educators, community members and parents at each school, Smith said. 

This will occur during the implementation phase, or the period of time leading up to the 2024-2025 school year, when the Student Assignment Plan will take effect. 

Feedback from last week’s presentation showed that community members did not like scenario B, Smith said. This scenario recommended building a Fifth Ward K-5 school, closing Bessie Rhodes, transitioning King Arts into a middle school and infusing magnet programming into the district’s curriculum. 

Smith explained that the committee floated this scenario as a way to avoid overcrowding at the middle schools and to address the popularity of magnet school programming. 

“It was just an option,” she said. “It got no love, so we are moving past that.”

Scenario A 2.0 would mean that there is still a magnet school in Evanston, and the K-8 Fifth Ward school would help reduce overcrowding at the middle schools. 

The elementary and middle school boundary lines remain the same in scenario A and scenario A 2.0. Under the proposal, each student would have an elementary school within a mile of their home. 

The middle school feeder pattern would not change except that Fifth Ward students would remain at the K-8 school. 

Smith displayed a series of graphics showing how the proposed attendance areas might impact enrollment. 

The elementary schools most impacted by the proposed attendance lines include Kingsley Elementary School, Lincolnwood Elementary School and Willard Elementary School, which buses children in from the Fifth Ward. 

Kingsley would experience a 57% decrease in enrollment. During the implementation phase, the SAP committee would discuss how to repurpose any available space at the school.

No changes would be made to the attendance boundaries for Dawes Elementary School, Lincoln Elementary School and Oakton Elementary School. All other elementary schools would experience slight changes to their attendance boundaries. 

The middle school most impacted by the proposed boundaries would be Haven Middle School, which would experience a 44% drop in enrollment due to the new Fifth Ward school. Smith said she doesn’t think repurposing space at Haven would be a big challenge due to the district’s many needs. 

Smith also displayed a chart showing how many students at each school would end up at another school, based on the proposed boundaries. 

To read this chart, Smith suggested viewers identify a current attendance school and then go down that school’s column to see how many of those students may attend another school. For instance, of the students currently enrolled at Dewey Elementary School, 14 would attend the Fifth Ward school, 263 would remain at Dewey and 29 would attend Orrington. 

The graphic is based on projections, and actual enrollment figures could differ, Smith said. 

Additionally, families in the Fifth Ward can decide whether they want to send their children to the new school or keep them at their current one. 

According to a survey sent to Fifth Ward homes, approximately 20% of families said they would want their children to stay at their current schools. 

“We have no idea how families are going to choose, particularly with Kingsley,” Smith said. 

Although enrollment numbers will not change significantly in the next five years, they are projected to decrease substantially within the next 10 years, Smith said. 

Projected enrollment numbers are based on birth rate data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The enrollment projections displayed in the graphs are based on projections without COVID-19 impact.

What’s still undetermined?

After presenting scenarios A and B, Smith said she received emails about some small boundary line edits for Kingsley Elementary School, Willard Elementary School and Dewey Elementary School, she said. The SAP committee will look into this during the implementation phase, she said. 

The committee will also discuss Kingsley, and how to repurpose space created by the school’s predicted enrollment drop.

When the Student Assignment Plan takes effect, the district will stop busing students. Some community members have expressed concern over this, saying busing helps parents with before- and after-school care, Smith said.

“We need to think more strategically about how we support our families without the major cost of busing,” Smith said. 

King Arts parents defend magnet program

Before Smith’s presentation at the Curriculum and Policy Committee, community members spoke up during public comment. 

Most speakers expressed appreciation for the SAP committee, and acknowledged that although change can be hard, it is long overdue. 

“By our inaction, we have elected to perpetuate decades-long harm,” said District 65 parent and educator Beth Brady. 

King Arts parents also spoke up during public comment, stressing the importance of magnet programming. One parent said the continuity of a K-8 school is crucial to her family, because it allows teachers and administrators to really get to know her children, who have a family history of neurodiversity and medical issues. 

“We have the opportunity, together, to ensure magnet programming is not extra, it’s foundational,” said Jodi Wickersheimer, a parent to three King Arts students. 

Several SAP committee members also spoke during public comment. 

Committee member and parent Scott Mangum highlighted an item to be considered during the implementation phase. 

Mangum said he urges the district to consider walkability, particularly along Emerson Street, which cuts through the proposed Fifth Ward school attendance boundary. Emerson is a truck route, serving approximately 13,000 cars per day. 

“It’s really going to be imperative to work with the City of Evanston, which has jurisdiction over the roadway, to make improvements so it’s a safe place for kids to walk,” Mangum said. 

SAP committee member Amy Brissette told audience members the committee spent months sifting through data, and examined every possible scenario. 

There is no easy way to break down a racist system that has existed for 53 years, she said.

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...