Once again, the city and District 65 are hoping to gather community input on ideas and design options for a new Fifth Ward neighborhood school, this time with a series of three engagement meetings scheduled within the next week.

The meetings for residents to voice their opinions will be:

  • 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 4 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center
  • 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, also at Fleetwood-Jourdain
  • 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8 at Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church

These meetings follow a not-so-successful community survey, which was offered to people exclusively online for nine days in December. But only 342 of Evanston’s 78,110 residents responded, including just 88 of the Fifth Ward’s estimated 7,794 residents.

The city shared the survey through email newsletters, on social media and through its own outreach efforts, according to Communications Manager Patrick Deignan.

Still, when it came to the city council on Monday, Jan. 9, Mayor Daniel Biss said, “I don’t think it’s clear from the survey what the community’s preference is regarding the [Foster] Field. I think it’s really important for decisions of this magnitude that we get the quantity and quality of input we need before just kind of rushing forward.”

Credit: Richard Cahan

“The District is utilizing all of our regular communication channels to help ensure community members are aware of the upcoming meetings,” Melissa Messinger, District 65’s executive director of communications, said via email on Feb. 2.

“This includes posting on our website and events calendar, sharing through social media as well as local media outlets, printed postcards to residents nearby the proposed school, inclusion within our District and school newsletters as well as City of Evanston communications, direct communication to Fifth Ward families with children currently in District 65, printed postcards at local businesses, and outreach and support from local community partners.”

Ward connectivity

But to go to a meeting, you have to know about it. Showing up, knocking on doors and handing out flyers, would help as the Fifth Ward has a much lower rate of household internet and computer access than the rest of the city, which could have contributed to the low survey response rate, according to the University of Chicago’s Internet Equity Initiative.

In fact, several people in the audience said the same thing at that first community meeting in December. People asked for the city to hand out hard copies of flyers advertising future engagement opportunities. Notifications about the Jan. 9 meeting and other chances to provide feedback had been predominantly online and insufficient, several said.

Compared to other areas in Evanston, the Fifth Ward has much lower access to high-speed internet, the Internet Equity Initiative. And while the initiative’s neighborhood maps are not completely aligned with the exact Evanston ward boundaries, they mirror the wards fairly closely, as the graphic below shows.

For example, 74.8% of all households in the Fifth Ward area of the map have a broadband subscription, compared to 97.5% of households in the area around the Seventh Ward and parts of the Sixth Ward.

Just 85% of households in the region encompassing most of the Fifth Ward have a computer at all, while 98.8% of households in the neighborhoods around the Seventh Ward and Sixth Ward have one, according to the initiative’s data.

A map detailing internet disparities by neighborhood around Evanston. Neighborhoods with a darker red have a lower rate of internet access.
A map detailing internet disparities by neighborhood around Evanston. Neighborhoods with a darker red have a lower rate of internet access. Credit: UChicago Internet Equity Initiative

About 54% of Fifth Ward residents are Black or Hispanic. Less than 15% of Seventh Ward residents and just 7% of Sixth Ward residents are Black or Hispanic, according to 2020 census data.

“Basically everyone in society these days needs affordable, reliable internet access to get their homework done, look for a job, get information about health care, communicate with a doctor, take an online course,” said Nick Feamster, a University of Chicago computer science professor and the lead researcher for the Internet Equity Initiative.

“Not even to mention just access to information. There’s so many things we saw during the pandemic that assumed you had internet access, like ‘sign up to book a vaccine appointment.’ Everything assumes internet access.”

In the 1990s, through the Telecommunications Act, the federal government essentially declared broadband infrastructure to be a private commodity that for-profit companies could build and sell for their own gain, Feamster said.

As a partial consequence of that law, American society now has wide inequities and disparities in internet access by neighborhood, race, income and other demographic factors.

Internet speed, in the households that do have broadband access, is also worse in the Fifth Ward than other areas of Evanston, with lower average download and upload rates.

Feamster identified the four key components of this issue as access, adoption, affordability and reliability. Even if a local government subsidizes routers throughout the neighborhood, that may not do much to solve the problem if those routers don’t provide good performance and a reliable connection.

And ultimately, until the city or state intervenes to prioritize broadband, surveys like the one about the Fifth Ward school and Fleetwood-Jourdain could achieve more participation and success through a mix of online callouts, in-person interviews, paper responses and phone calls, for example.

“We can all agree now that there’s a problem. That’s progress,” Feamster said. “The solution isn’t going to be any one of these things. It’s not like ‘Let’s just make it free in this community, and problem solved.'”

“Neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, the source of these problems may differ. … We have a problem here, but in order to tackle it, let’s start really drilling down community by community, and maybe there are patterns.”

City’s community engagement steps

The most recent community meeting on the Fifth Ward school, in December, also featured a discussion about the future of Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, which the city had previously proposed rebuilding or moving to a new location in order to preserve green space around the Foster Field area.

Dara Munson, president and CEO of Family Focus, speaks with Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward (left) and Mayor Daniel Biss Credit: Richard Cahan

The city will be there to listen, but it will not do any presentations, Capital Planning and Engineering Bureau Chief Lara Biggs said.

In early January, as a result of concerns about the timeline and the quality of community feedback for the project, city council decided to rework its agreement with District 65, allowing the school district to speed ahead on building the school itself where Foster Field lies while giving the city more time to decide its plans for Fleetwood-Jourdain.

But Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said the school district still needed the city to make decisions quickly.

“This was presented much rosier than what I think is the reality,” Burns said at the Jan. 9 council meeting. “They [District 65] are going to need to know what direction we’re taking, what parking is available and isn’t available, in the next few weeks in order for them to make long-term decisions about where they put things on this site.”

Hiring a firm to help

As a result, the city is considering hiring an architecture consultant to help decide the best options for the future of Fleetwood-Jourdain, Biggs said.

The firm would assist the city with determining all options for enhancing the community center, as well as the costs for each option. Then, the city would relay those options to the community.

“We would be looking to hire an architect to provide guidance on what our best options are considering both the needs of the community and also potential costs to determine how we can best move forward,” Biggs said.

Additionally, the city has a contract with Hirons, a marketing consulting firm, to help get public feedback on potential upgrades for both Fleetwood-Jourdain and Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center.

The city has started the community engagement process for Gibbs-Morrison, but for Fleetwood-Jourdain, officials wanted to gather specific questions to ask community members before moving forward. The city plans to use Hirons for this effort.

Longtime Evanstonian Jerome Summers said he has “trust issues” with the city and District 65 during the community meeting on Dec. 6. Credit: Richard Cahan

“We are planning on utilizing that contract to to do some public engagement related to the Fifth Ward school, and we actually are in the process,” Biggs said.

The city expects to receive a list of possible community engagement options from Hirons within the next two weeks.

“There are some people that are concerned that this talk means that there won’t be a Fleetwood, but the city currently is not planning on getting rid of Fleetwood,” Biggs said.

“There is going to be a Fleetwood-Jourdain. Whether it’s the existing Fleetwood-Jourdain or a Fleetwood-Jourdain that’s expanded or a Fleetwood-Jourdain that gets reconstructed is the part that we’re looking at.”

The city plans to target community engagement to stakeholder groups, or people who routinely utilize the community center, to identify what needs they have that the current center isn’t meeting.

The Foster Senior Club is one of the groups the city hopes to gather feedback from, Biggs said. The club is deeply connected to the Fifth Ward and uses the community center frequently. The club’s more than 100 members reach every ward in the city.

The RoundTable attended the club’s Feb. 1 meeting and asked, what is the best way to get input from the group.

JoAnn Comer, a club member, said, one of the most helpful ways to keep the club informed is to speak at its meetings. The club already shares city announcements and events at each meeting. She said, “We want to have them come in and spell it out for us.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. I am so grateful to read about the subject that how many, many residents are not on social media who live in Evanston therefore know little to nothing about the 5 th Ward school. Some may own property so they pay additionally to live here through real estate taxes, yet are not informed on the discussion around the 5 th Ward School to be built. When planning anything here, we must start with like it use to be , how did we reach out to residents before the internet? Start with that reality and plan from there “ list how will we really inform the public, then execute that plan.

    1. Janet brings up a very good point. Why don’t people know much about the 5th ward school?

      It probably has a lot to do with the funding scheme concocted by the Board and Superintendent. Normally big capital projects like building a new school are funded via a bond issue so the operating budget can remain untouched and flexible.

      To issue bonds the District has to actually go out into the community and educate people as to the value of the project because the voters have to approve a bond issue.

      The last time we had a referendum there was a concerted publicity effort on the part of the administration that involved mobilizing voters throughout the community to support the district. The administration was transparent in terms of what the money would fund and explained the need very well. The result was a 80% win and lots of enthusiasm for the referendum.

      This time around the superintendent and Board decided not to go to the public for their explicit support to raise money for the school. Instead, they are going to dip into the operating funds and haven’t done a compelling job (in my view) of explaining what the long-term budgetary impacts will be in an environment of declining enrollments.

  2. Let’s address the real problem with all the city surveys. It has nothing to do with internet access. You would have the same problem with a mail survey. The problem is that they have no recognition of the problem of selection bias.

    The survey results only capture the views of people with sufficient motivation to go to the trouble of filling out the survey. This normally results in skewed results where you are getting the views of people who are passionately interested in the issue.

    A proper survey takes a random sample of a population which avoids the issue of self-selection. The City, District 65, and other entities NEVER conduct surveys in this fashion.

    This tells us they are not really interested in the actual views of the community. The surveys are sent out as a type of “community engagement theater” so when a decision is ultimately made they can claim to have done adequate outreach to understand the community’s views.

    The data is basically useless.

    The same is true for polling organized community groups such as the ones mentioned in this article. These groups are usually very small, self-selected in their membership, and not very representative of the larger community.

    The whole enterprise of sending out these surveys in the fashion done by the City is a complete waste of money and effort.