Evanston/Skokie District 65 has seen a decline in applications to its two magnet schools over the last few years, an official said Tuesday evening at a community engagement meeting with parents from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary & Fine Arts School.
Family interest in both King Arts and the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, the district’s two kindergarten through eighth grade magnet schools, is waning, said Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith.
The district needs to do a better job recruiting students to magnet schools to keep other buildings, especially the neighborhood middle schools, from becoming overcrowded, she said. That situation has partially arisen because of declining public school enrollment across District 65, but it is also the result of a general lack of awareness when it comes to magnet schools.
Those two magnet schools accept enrollment applications from families living anywhere within the district’s Evanston and Skokie boundaries. As a result, the schools tend to have a more geographically, racially and socioeconomically diverse group of students than many the district’s neighborhood schools.
“Our younger grades are declining more and more each year. We are projected to decline for the next 10 years across the board,” Smith said. “Our middle school populations are still high, but those kindergarten, first, second grades are pretty small classes compared to what we had in years past.”
Tuesday’s meeting at King Arts was the latest engagement opportunity for residents in the second phase of the Student Assignment Planning process, which is a multi-year project launched by District 65 to redraw school boundaries based on both community needs and the issues brought up thanks to enrollment declines.
In the first phase of that redistricting project, the district concluded that parents and community members wanted improved school programs, rather than new programming. Existing programs include the district’s African Centered Curriculum (ACC), Two-Way Immersion (TWI) and other offerings focused on supporting students with high behavioral or therapeutic needs.
Plus, King Arts is designed to offer more an arts and literature education, while Bessie Rhodes is focused on global studies, as mentioned in the actual names of the schools.
“On the board, we’re committed to elevating education for all of our students in the district. So it shouldn’t be that only the magnet programs are going to provide you with that really high-quality education,” school board member Soo La Kim said at Tuesday’s meeting. “One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot is the programming should be where the students are. Instead of moving students around, we should have programs in the buildings where the students live.”
But the parents in the audience on Tuesday talked about how they wanted a more comprehensive arts curriculum integrated into all of the academics at King Arts. As it currently stands, the only specific arts education that King Arts students get is an extra 20 minutes of dance class every day, according to several parents at the meeting.
Parents said they applied to enroll their children at King Arts based on recommendations from their friends, family or neighbors, rather than marketing from the district. Still, they talked about how much they appreciated King Arts as a school that embraces kids with special needs or with different interests than the students at other schools.
“I think this school embraces different kids particularly well,” one parent said. “I can talk about the way my son was embraced here as a weird kid who would not fit in in most groups, and is accepted by his peers, and has now, through fifth grade, had six teachers who all get him and see him when he can’t sit still and has all these other issues. I can’t even say what that means to me … This school is phenomenal at educating challenging children. It is really special.”
Moving forward, the district is planning to take the community feedback it receives during these listening sessions to make formal recommendations on how to set up special programs once the new neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward is built. Already, the district has announced that Bessie Rhodes will move inside the Fifth Ward school as a “magnet school within a school,” according to Smith’s student assignment presentation.
Starting in December, families will be able to apply to join a committee as part of the second phase of the student assignment project, Smith said. That committee will meet twice a month between January and May of 2023, and then present the results of its discussions to the school board in May.
“I’m hearing that there are opportunities for strengthening the magnet program that are now at that point where I know that there’s a real desire to move on that,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Andalib Khelghati. “There is lots to celebrate about this school, and while investments in the arts part of it are one thing, there are a lot of things that make this school very special, and that’s why people come here.”