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Plans to build a K-8 school in the Fifth Ward were approved by a 7-0 vote at the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board meeting March 14.
The district will redraw elementary and middle school attendance boundaries and move the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies community into the new Fifth Ward school.
The school board also approved the issuance of up to $40 million in lease certificates to fund construction of the new school.
More than 100 community members attended the Monday meeting, with 24 speaking up during the public comment period to endorse the decision, and to express appreciation for the Student Assignment Planning (SAP) committee, which spent the last year developing the plan.
Gilo Kwesi Logan, a fifth generation Black Evanstonian, said for generations Black children have been exported out of their communities and imported into white communities in the name of integration.
Logan said he experienced this burden, and so did his two eldest sons. “Today we can change that,” he said. “This decision should be data driven, and the data calls for a Fifth Ward school.”
Oliver Ruff spoke up as a former student at Foster School, the previous Fifth Ward school. He said it was about time to repair the harm caused by decades of neglect in the Fifth Ward after Foster School closed in 1979.
Although all community members who spoke during public comment backed the plan, several board members spoke up addressing some of the resistance the district has faced.
Board member Soo La Kim said she is puzzled that some are coming forward claiming that the plan feels rushed, given that the SAP committee has spent over a year researching, planning, collecting input and hosting discussions.
“We have heard from some that this is happening too fast,” said Board Vice President Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan. She said that she has been teaching university classes on social change and civic engagement for 15 years and isn’t familiar with any social movement where there wasn’t a group resisting that change with the argument it is moving too fast.
“It is far too common for us not to feel the urgency in situations that don’t impact us,” Lindsay-Ryan said.
The plan approved Monday, called Scenario A 2.0 by the SAP committee, keeps two magnet schools in Evanston, and the K-8 Fifth Ward school can help reduce overcrowding at the middle schools.
Plan to take effect in 2024
The district’s plan, previously presented March 7, will build a new K-8 school that will begin serving students in the 2024-2025 school year. The SAP committee is holding off on recommending programming for this school and the other District 65 schools until more community input is gathered.
Although a previous version of the plan shut down Bessie Rhodes entirely, the school community expressed a desire to stay together, so the magnet school will be moved into the Fifth Ward school, “as a magnet school within a school,” said Sarita Smith, Director of Student Assignments.
Under the proposed plan, the elementary and middle school boundary lines will be adjusted so that students will be no more than about a mile from the schools they attend. The middle school feeder patterns do not change, except for students enrolled in the Fifth Ward school.
The new school, estimated to cost $40 million, will be paid for by lease certificates, long-term financial commitments exclusively used for funding new buildings. Officials have said the lease certificates would be paid back through transportation savings created by no longer busing the vast majority of District 65 students.
School board members share personal experiences
Before the vote, some school board members spoke up to share stories about growing up Black without a neighborhood school.
Board member Marquise Weatherspoon said she and her family members have been bused to their District 65 schools for the last three generations. She said she remembers waiting outside in the cold so a bus could take her to the “good neighborhood.”
Teachers expected her to perform well without knowing what it took just for her to arrive at school every day, Weatherspoon said. Meanwhile, she listened as other students discussed exciting afternoon clubs that she couldn’t attend because she took the bus.
“What we do here tonight is bigger for me than a walkable neighborhood school,” Weatherspoon said. “This is a gift of hope, dignity, trust, worth, confidence and care.”
Board President Anya Tanyavutti said she was bused as a child, from a primarily Black subsidized apartment complex to a nearly all-white subdivision in a university town in Michigan.
Tanyavutti recalled her first day at kindergarten: All the other children were dropped off by their parents while she exited the bus alone, she said. She said she spent the entire year “trying to untangle the unspoken rules of this new place, far from home.”
When Tanyavutti learned about Foster School, the Fifth Ward school that closed in 1979 after the district desegregated, she already knew the story because she experienced it in another town, she said.
Monday’s decision leaves a legacy of love and care, Tanyavutti said. She thanked the school board, the administration and the entire community.
Hopes for Fifth Ward school
During the public comment period, District 65 parent and SAP committee member Amy Brissette said community members worried about diversity under the new plan need to understand it is not the responsibility of the Fifth Ward students to satisfy that concern.
For 53 years, children in the Fifth Ward have been stripped of privileges that other students enjoyed, said Brissette. It is time to lay back down the foundation that was taken from children in the Fifth Ward, she said.
Ruff said he hopes that staff members at the new school will reflect the population they serve. There are less than 10 Black male teachers in the entire district, he said.
Smith’s father also spoke up during public comment, expressing his pride in his daughter for spearheading this movement.
The school he attended, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School, enabled him to see his dreams, and he hopes that other young Black children receive the support they need to share the experiences he was able to have, he said.
Another resident, a fourth generation Black Evanstonian, said her cousin was one of only two Black students bused out of the Fifth Ward to attend Lincoln.
“All of you non-Black community residents benefit from our deep-rooted trauma,” she said. Returning a school to the Fifth Ward is just the start, she added.