District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton made one thing clear on Saturday, Feb. 4: The district will not let any concerns, complaints or demands from residents delay the construction of a Fifth Ward school.

“What we will not do, I’m going to be honest, we will not stop the process and the progress of building a school for our babies in the Fifth Ward,” Horton said. “The goalpost continues to be shifted, from my experience here, as we try to do something great for this community, and the goalpost has to stop moving. We have to do it.”

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton speaks to the crowd gathered at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center Saturday, Feb. 4. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Horton said he and his team are happy to work with other organizations to meet any goals for sustainability or for additional playgrounds and fields at the new campus, for example. But those conversations cannot stop or pause the project entirely, he said.

Horton spoke at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center to a group of about 30 people at the first of three scheduled community engagement meetings the district is hosting to talk about the new school.

The next two meetings are scheduled at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 at Fleetwood-Jourdain, 1655 Foster St., and 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 1711 Simpson St.

Initially, and up until recently, District 65 and the city were working together to redesign the Fifth Ward’s Foster Field area, where the city’s Fleetwood-Jourdain center is located as well as the privately run Family Focus Evanston, 2010 Dewey Ave.

Screenshot of the Jan. 9 city council meeting, Mayor Daniel Biss presiding. Credit: Susy Schultz

In order to save more outdoor recreational space on the site, the city proposed rebuilding or relocating Fleetwood-Jourdain. But after a tense first community meeting in December, city staff and council members decided to separate their timeline for a community center renovation from the district’s timeline for school construction.

At a council meeting in early January, Mayor Daniel Biss and Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma said they wanted more time to gather quality feedback before making a decision on the path forward for Fleetwood-Jourdain.

In turn, that move allowed the school district to forge ahead on building its new school on the land it owns on Foster Field.

Design concepts

Horton and representatives from architecture and engineering firm Cordogan Clark opened Saturday’s discussion with a presentation on the latest design concept for the campus, which proposes a four-story, “L” shaped school building with space for a new turf field next to it, as shown in the concept photos.

The district is also in talks with Family Focus to build two new playground spaces in the area next to the nonprofit’s building, according to Horton and lead architect Alex Lopez.

“We’re pretty excited,” Lopez said. “The school district is moving forward with the design. To be quite honest, because we needed to study this at depth, we have not really moved too far into the interior design of the building, and even the exterior design of the building.”

Based on this latest design, the campus would feature a relocated basketball court near the new playground areas, and 83 parking spaces for an anticipated school staff of between 70 and 75 people. Builders will have to remove about eight trees along Ashland Avenue, but the area will gain about 20 total trees after new ones are planted, according to Lopez.

Meeting attendees primarily voiced two concerns about the planned development: the size of the building and student population on such a limited site, and the environmental sustainability of the completed building.

Lead architect Alex Lopez talks about design concepts for the Fifth Ward school campus. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Currently, Cordogan Clark and the district are looking at a fall 2025 opening date for the school, Lopez said.

The latest projections suggest that about 780 students would attend the school between Fifth Ward neighborhood students and the Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, which is moving from its own site to the new building, Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith said.

“I know we’ve got a really tight site, so it makes it difficult to have two K-8 schools, with Bessie Rhodes being bused in and the Fifth Ward K-8, but four stories is unprecedented in District 65 and out of scale with the neighborhood here,” said Scott Mangum, Evanston resident and urban planner. “You really just have a lot on one site.”

And when it comes to environmental sustainability, Lopez presented a plan that would include solar power for the building, high efficiency heating and cooling and “potential LEED certification.”

Lopez talks about the Fifth Ward school campus.

The LEED system rates buildings based on how green they are, with multiple tiers of certification available. Achieving LEED Platinum, the highest possible grade, would require an additional $10 million on top of the $40 million building budget, according to District 65 Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi.

Advocates with Environmental Justice Evanston, including Janet Alexander Davis and Jerri Garl, expressed some concern about the district not guaranteeing LEED certification for the building.

They wanted to see more of a commitment to achieving that level of sustainability, as well as spaces for innovative ideas like rain gardens and porous parking, for example.

But Horton and Obafemi said the district’s resources are limited, and they can only commit to building what their funding can provide.

If the district is able to secure outside, private money through grants or donations, then something like LEED Platinum could be more doable, Horton said.

“We can only do so much, and I would challenge the people in this room, and our families in this Fifth Ward, to understand that we have broken a 55-year issue. We found dollars to build a school,” Horton said.

“We’re not building a shabby, half-built, half-whatever. We’re building a phenomenal facility, so I would hate for us to allow great to be the enemy of good. We’re building a quality school for our children.”

ETHS board Vice President Monique Parsons, standing in the back, said the school has to be built no matter what. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Echoing that sentiment, Evanston Township High School board Vice President and McGaw YMCA CEO Monique Parsons urged people to remember the historic harms done against Fifth Ward kids for decades by forcing them to wait for buses in the winter cold and travel to schools outside their own neighborhood.

“We’re talking about how many will be in this building. To this very day, and for decades, that same number has been leaving this community, and that’s a disgrace,” Parsons said.

“So I am trusting that you will figure this out to support the students and the families of this community … and I’m hoping that people that are giving suggestions are first thinking about how overjoyed we are that this is happening, first and foremost. The disgrace is keeping the goalpost moving. That’s the disgrace. This has to happen.”

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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  1. I hope that while making this exciting historic change the district will also focus on the individual children who will be impacted when the school opens. How can we do what’s right for the long haul while minimizing the number of kids who will be forced to change schools bc of change of programming location or loss of transportation. I think we can do the right thing in making big long term change while still doing right by the kids who will be midstream when the school opens and boundaries change. Those kids already went through so much pandemic disruption at such a young age—we need to figure out how the district can ensure continuity and not make young kids pay the price of this change. I know the focus is on the building now, but I worry that those transitions aren’t being considered. When last I heard, 5th ward kids would have the choice to finish at the school where they started but without transit. That is not really a choice for all families.

    1. It is a good point that Bevin makes: we need to be focusing on the kids.

      I have never seen an actual *educational* rationale for building this new school.

      The entire effort seems to be motivated by the nostalgia of a small number of older residents who long for the ‘good old days’ and hope that putting a school in the neighborhood will “make Evanston great again.”

      It would have been very easy to conduct a simple statistical analysis to see if busing has a significant impact on student performance. You include control variables of demographics and see if there is an effect. How do kids who take the bus to school perform on educational measures when compared to kids from similar demographic characteristics who don’t take the bus to school?

      Did the district conduct such an analysis and report their findings to the community? Maybe I missed it. I’ve seen multiple presentations from Horton and have never seen academic performance even discussed.

      One thing that is pretty well-established by education research is that lower income and students of color have better educational outcomes in integrated schools rather than in segregated schools.

      Given that the explicit outcome stated by Horton is to re-segregate the school for kids in the “fifth ward”, it would be very useful for the District to describe how they are going to evaluate “success” of this very endeavor.

      We have seen through the Roundtable’s reporting that they are lowering the standards for the entire district. We need to know what metrics are going to be used to see if students who go to this new school are actually better-served.

      The fact that they have not publicized the educational analysis of the current situation nor the evaluative measures should cause everyone who wants children to have a quality education to be very worried.

      1. Student performance is not the only concern here, nor nostalgia. The lack of a neighborhood school is a major detriment to quality of life for families in the fifth ward! We moved here with two young children and specifically chose our neighborhood because it is working class and diverse and reflects our family and our values. Imagine our surprise when we found out that we had to send our children to school in northwest Evanston on a bus that takes 45 minutes each way! We asked if our children could attend Dewey, which is only a few blocks from our house but we were told no. So we, like so many fifth ward families, chose a magnet school because they are both significantly closer to us and feel more welcoming than our assigned school.

        Furthermore, giving the fifth ward it’s own school is not segregating anyone except the northwest Evanston schools that will be losing most of their minority populations. The fifth ward itself is very well balanced with nearly equal amounts black, white, and Hispanic families and smaller numbers of East Asians and other ethnic groups. The need for a new building can be argued but the need for redrawing the boundary lines is irrefutable. Children should be able to walk to school in a dense urban community like Evanston.

        1. I appreciate your points, Silvia. I’d be curious to know when you moved to Evanston? I don’t think the attendance boundaries have been changed in at least 20 years. So I am not sure why the boundaries were a surprise.

          Nevertheless, I can see why you would want public amenities in your ward. I would love to have City Hall in my ward so I don’t have to travel across town to go to public meetings. But we can’t have a City Hall in every ward, so I am fine with having it in the Fifth Ward. I would love to have two EL stations in my ward like the Fifth Ward does. But, alas.

          My kids have to go to a different ward for their school also. Would I love to have them go to school in the ward? I guess. But it is important to understand the tradeoffs.

          The funding mechanism the District is using is unusual and risky. Instead of bonding the school they decided to raid the operating budget. That means for the next 20 years there will be line in their annual budget that is immune from cuts and will not contribute to instructional costs. They will undoubtedly be forced to skimp in terms of investing in teachers and curricular offerings.

          I would much rather have my kids have to go to another ward to get good instruction and have rich cultural activities than to have them go to a school next door with bigger class sizes and demoralized teachers.

          In the past couple of years we have seen many very good experienced educators leave the district. I fear that this trend is undoubtedly going to continue.

          The District shouldn’t think of itself as a real estate developer. The educational quality needs to be prioritized over all else.

          1. Stephan, I believe you have valid points regarding the expense and funding of the new school. We moved to Evanston about two years ago. Evanston is 7.8 square miles and has 12 elementary schools. Everyone should be able to walk to school. It never occurred to me to check if I have to pass directly by two other schools before coming to my assigned school, so yes, I was very surprised to find that out. We were strongly considering both magnet schools for other reasons but our closing date got unexpectedly pushed back and we ended up missing the deadline, so we spent one year at Willard before we were able to get into a magnet school. I could say a lot about that experience but I don’t have the time right now.

            I appreciate all the arguments against the new school, but nobody ever asked us if we would rather simply have the boundary lines changed so that 5th ward students could attend Dewey and Kingsley.

            I simply had to respond to your two points about academic improvement and re- segregation. The 5th ward school, if it gets built will be a beautifully diverse school both racially and economically.

          2. I should also note that Willard is a fine school. We were treated well and found the staff to be excellent. The difficulties lay more with the distance involved and the fact that we are a car-free family who chose not to use the bus because our son was just starting full day school and we anticipated that he would struggle with the long hours and separation. We didn’t want to add an hour and a half to his day by having him take the bus. It’s great that a bus is provided but adding that much time to the school day is also a hardship for young children. We chose a 15 minute bike ride instead.