When the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board officially approved a construction project to build a neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward on the site of Foster Field, district leaders said the school would open its doors in the fall of 2024.
But the plans have changed, apparently several times, according to emails obtained by the RoundTable through a Freedom of Information Act request.
It is also clear parents are confused at the changes in the school timeline and other changes in the district plans — a sentiment that was voiced during a series of recent meetings this week on the district’s Student Assignment Planning project.
The district is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6 at Fleetwood-Jourdain, 1655 Foster St., where representatives for the architects, the city and District 65 are all expected to discuss potential Fifth Ward school campus concepts, including options for renovating or demolishing the existing community center building next to Foster Field.
The evolution of the timeline
In May, Superintendent Devon Horton told district staff that “we anticipate the new school opening in time for the 2024-2025 school year,” according to emails.
But in August, the City Council approved an agreement with District 65 to work with the architects of the new school on possibly tearing down and rebuilding Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center as part of the overall project, as well.
At the time, Deputy City Manager Dave Stoneback wrote in a memo to council members and the mayor that “staff is concerned that the scale of the proposed structures relative to the limited space on site will create numerous issues including loss of greenspace, loss of mature trees, security/safety issues, traffic congestion, and an urban density that is out of scale and character with the surrounding neighborhood.”
As a result, the district pushed back its estimated completion date for the new school to the spring of 2025, according to emails written by District 65 Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi and also obtained by the RoundTable via its FOIA request.
“I think it might be a bit premature to speculate about the date of the new school opening and its impact on the start of the 2024-2025 school year,” Obafemi said in an Aug. 16 email to Evanston Now reporter Jeff Hirsh. “As the development and construction of the school comes into better focus, I am sure we will develop a solid plan to address all contingencies.”
Adding to the complexities of successfully building a new school, the district is also undergoing a massive Student Assignment Planning project, which will help determine new attendance boundaries for students once the Fifth Ward school opens.
As part of that process, Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith has met with families at schools around the district to hear feedback on specialty programs and where to locate them in the district.
At those meetings, parents have said they feel confused about the new school project, the attendance boundary changes and what it all could mean for the daily lives of their children.
For example, several two-way immersion (TWI) families attending a recent meeting at Washington Elementary School said they had heard rumors about their schools losing the TWI program because of student assignment changes.
According to the presentations on student assignments that Smith has given to families around Evanston throughout this fall, the Fifth Ward school could open “as early as” 2025, with construction teams breaking ground at Foster Field “as early as” 2023.
Smith responded that the district has not yet made any decisions about changes to any of its specialty programs such as TWI or African Centered Curriculum.
“Something that’s been hard is the communication around all of this,” said Debra Senra, a parent at Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, at a Student Assignment Planning meeting this week.
“Even language like ‘student assignment’ I think is really misleading. I thought it was where your kid was going to be placed in the classroom next year, and I felt totally bulldozed when I got a text saying [the district] was going to close Bessie Rhodes. I had no idea that was a possibility at all.”
Senra was referring to the district’s plan to rebuild Bessie Rhodes as a kindergarten through eighth grade magnet school within the new Fifth Ward school campus. The district is expected to sell the current Bessie Rhodes building once the new school opens, though Smith said she does not yet know if Bessie Rhodes will have a separate entrance or wing inside the new building in the Fifth Ward.
“That I cannot answer yet until we get the specs of the building,” Smith said this week.
For her part, Senra did say at the end of the meeting that she appreciated all of Smith’s work, and that she felt better about the project and plans for the future because of the presentation Smith gave at Bessie Rhodes.
But public awareness of these engagement meetings with Smith and other district leaders has remained limited.
At the Bessie Rhodes meeting on Tuesday, Senra said she only heard of the gathering a day in advance. No members of the public showed up to another meeting on Wednesday night focused on specialty programs for children with disabilities or high needs like the Rice Education Center and Park School.
D65 says plans are still in early stages
In a conversation with the RoundTable on Wednesday, Smith clarified that the Student Assignment Planning project is still in its early stages, and these meetings, which she called the “discovery tour,” are primarily for her to hear from families on what seems to be working or not working with different programs across the district.
Ultimately, the main goal of the process is to eliminate busing students to schools outside their neighborhood if the district can provide the programs they need at their community school, she said.
“The purpose of the discovery tour is to get feedback from people that are involved and have deep connections to these programs,” Smith said. “What is great about it? What is working? What is not working? And specifically, is it placed appropriately?”
Johanna Nyden, Evanston’s former community development director who was at that same Bessie Rhodes meeting in her capacity as a parent, also expressed some concerns about the state of the economy and the rising costs of construction materials and labor. Those trends could continue to delay or derail the original plans for the Fifth Ward school, she said.
“There’s a question in everyone’s mind: Is this even going to happen because of what’s going on with the economy?” Nyden cautioned. “I work in construction, and development projects are dropping like flies because people can’t get money to do this, and it’s only going to get more expensive. I think that’s a really serious concern.”