District 65 board president Anya Tanyavutti, with Superintendent Devon Horton at left, addresses residents March 12 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Representatives from Evanston/Skokie School District 65 met with Fifth Ward residents March 12 for a last conversation before Monday night’s scheduled board vote on building a Fifth Ward school.

At one point one of the about 40 people who attended the session at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center asked if District 65 officials believe the recommendation to shift attendance boundaries and build the new school will pass Monday.

“I would be shocked if we didn’t have the votes,” responded school board President Anya Tanyavutti.

Added District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton: “Yes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Also leading the discussion Saturday were District 65 board member Marquise Weatherspoon, president of Advocates for Action, and Sarita Smith, Director of Student Assignments on the Student Assignment Planning (SAP) committee.

Horton started the meeting by reviewing the task the SAP committee has been at for the past year: to develop a comprehensive Student Assignment Plan while also accommodating the addition of a new school in the Fifth Ward.

The SAP committee is proposing to shift attendance boundaries for the first time in 25 years and will recommend closing the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies and opening a K-8 Fifth Ward school, which also will house the Bessie Rhodes community. 

A crowd of residents – including longtime community member Carlis Sutton, in E-Town mask – listens intently at the March 12 District 65 meeting at Fleetwood-Jourdain. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Horton also gave an overview of the funding structure for the new Fifth Ward school, specifically emphasizing its novelty. The funding model relies on lease certificates to pay for the new school – the district says it will save $2 million to $3 million a year by ending busing and use that savings to pay for a new $40 million school building bit by bit each year, like a mortgage. 

“Who would have thought that getting a Fifth Ward school would not cost you one dollar?” Horton said, clarifying he meant “in additional money, versus what you already pay in property taxes.”

A 2012 attempt to build a Fifth Ward school that would have used bond funding and raised tax rates failed because a required referendum didn’t pass: 45.21% voted in favor and 54.79% voted against. 

At Saturday’s meeting, district leaders took the opportunity to answer questions from residents and to dispel what they called “popular myths” about the new Fifth Ward school.

Community questions 

Although it was clear that District 65 was eager to present the long-awaited confirmation of a new school built on the Foster campus, there was an array of resident questions raised in search of clarity about the impending project.

Two residents asked about child care outside of the K-8 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day. Stephen Vick, Executive Director of the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston asked if the new campus was interested in meeting the needs of kids aged 0-3. In short, Horton said yes, because the programming to come will be informed by community input. 

Another Evanston resident asked what is happening to Fleetwood-Jourdain and Family Focus, the nonprofit which owns the old Foster School building. 

At this point, Henry Wilkins of STEM School Evanston told the audience how, with the renovations to come at both buildings, the 501(c)(3) will be spearheading a STEM hub in those spaces. Wilkins also said he anticipates the Evanston Public Library having a presence in the newly renovated space. 

STEM School Evanston founder Henry Wilkins speaks at the March 12 Fifth Ward school meeting. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

A longtime worker of Family Focus asked if the plan is to make Fleetwood-Jourdain a three- or four-story building with elevator access. Yes, Horton said.

Vick also asked if the school was going to make more efforts with the Spanish-speaking population, who might whisper that the Fifth Ward school is just “the black school.”

“There’s obviously a historical nature of repairing what happened to the Black community, you know, I mean, that’s obvious in our conversation,” Vick said. “But now we also have the complexity of a different population.”

Tanyavutti responded that the fear that Latinos will be left behind is rooted in a myth of a scarcity of resources that forces minority groups to compete. “And so we have to untangle some of that too, and heal some of those times and acknowledge that this exists,” she said.

Horton addresses ‘myths’ 

During the community conversation, Horton and Tanyavutti took several minutes to dispel a list of statements, which they called “myths,” that they have heard circulating concerning the planned Fifth Ward school.

“So, No. 1, when they say we’re segregating our schools intentionally? No, we’re not,” Horton said. “We’re just not putting it [desegregation] on the backs of the students.” The new Fifth Ward school will serve a predominantly Black population and end the practice of busing some students to schools in north Evanston.  

Horton said another myth is that the district is eliminating schools in north Evanston, which he said is not true. “If we eliminate schools in north Evanston, then we eliminate our walkable schools and that creates a whole ‘nother financial issue for us that we got to pay for,” he said.

The third “myth” Horton named is that the financial plan for the new school is not solid. “This is as solid as you’re gonna get. … Other school districts in the area have used this quietly, this lease certificate model and have been able to finance,” he said. “You lock in rates for 20 years, you eliminate a debt that was systemically racist in its whole design, and you leverage it to build that back up, right? What a better way to talk about reparations, right? Take those funds to pay for that school that should have been identified.”

The fourth “myth” he listed is that the new school initiative is only concerned with Fifth Ward students. Horton said that, no, the reason why the SAP committee has spent a year wrangling with a master student plan is because the reassignment plan is about all students.

Lastly, Horton said that it’s a myth that the Fifth Ward school will bring gentrification to the ward. He insisted that the mom-and-pop shops across the street from Fleetwood-Jourdain are going to stay there. 

Tanyavutti said comments calling the plan not fiscally sound are rooted in myth. 

We know that [the school plan] is rooted in data… in [a] fiscal sense,” she said. “And we also know that it’s rooted in stakeholder feedback. And after a yearlong, deep dive into making this decision as a collaborative community to imply that it’s divisive, or that it’s not fiscally sound, or that it’s not the right thing to do, is rooted in racism.”

Celebration paired with suspicion

Ultimately, community members at the Fifth Ward meeting applauded what District 65 has said will come, but some were hesitant to believe that what has been promised will actually be fulfilled. 

Carlis Sutton expressed gratitude – and some wary caution.

“I want to thank you for the dialogue that is now being entertained that we have been speaking about for the last 50 years,” Sutton said. “Evanston has a history of asking us what we want, so they can come up with ways to deny it.” 

The District 65 school board meets at 7 pm. Monday, March 14 at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center, 1500 McDaniel Ave. The meeting will be streamed live online.

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...