The District 65 board and administration are finally acknowledging what anyone who has been paying attention has recognized – that the many families who have left District 65 schools during and following the pandemic are not coming back. This is resulting in steep, likely permanent losses in enrollment for District 65 which in turn has impacts that you, as an Evanston citizen with or without kids in District 65, should care about – especially since it appears that the District 65 board and administration does not.

Here are the numbers: At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, there were 7,422 children enrolled in D65 schools; at the start of the 2022-2023 school year, there were 6,116 children enrolled in D65 schools. That amounts to the loss of over 1,300 students, or approximately 17% of enrolled students. As large as those numbers sound, it could be worse – many local private schools have wait lists to get in. In other words, there is a line to get out the door of Evanston public schools.

Actual student enrollment has fallen by more than 1,300 students since the 2018-19 school year. The student population is projected to decline by about 450 more students over the next five years. Credit: RoundTable analysis

Those are the numbers that bring us to today – and the future does not appear promising. At the January 17 board meeting, Sarita Smith, the manager of student assignments, projected a loss of another 456 students in the next five years. 

Any business that loses 17% of its customers would be intensely curious as to what was happening and why, and would be taking serious measures to correct the outflow of customers. Of course, District 65 is not a business – and its approach to the loss of students shows this. The assumption that was made by the board and administration alike is that the losses were being driven by pandemic and that families would return once things returned to “normal.” That was not borne out in reality, as the recent report to the Board shows. The task of finding out why people have left and what can be done to correct course is not one that the D65 board or administration have demonstrated the slightest interest in addressing.

So even though the board and administration don’t seem to care that families are leaving and not returning, why should you, the Evanston resident, care even if you don’t have children in District 65 schools?

  • Schools are the glue of the neighborhood – This should be obvious, but schools are places where children make friends – sometimes life-long friends – who live a few blocks away. Parents get to know each other through school events, volunteering, seeing each other on the playground. Schools help build communities, and when we have families leave the district to find education for their children elsewhere, it weakens the bonds of our community.
  • Diminished support for our schools – One of the shared values in our community has been support for our schools and our teachers. The school funding referendum in 2017 passed with over 80% of the vote. When a teacher’s strike was a possibility in 2016, “Support D65 teachers” bumper stickers sprouted up everywhere – and can still be seen on the streets even today.

However, when so many families are taking their children elsewhere, there is no reason to expect that level of community support to continue. Moving a child out of a school and away from established friends is a traumatic move for the whole family – but families are very clearly making it with frightening regularity. And even if they remain in Evanston, there is no reason to expect that they will continue to support D65 schools. Whatever issue they had with D65 was powerful enough that they chose to endure the trauma of a school change. And, in the case of families who elected to go to private school, they also chose to take the hit to family finances. Expecting them to continue to support a school system that they felt failed to deliver sufficient value to their families is utterly unrealistic.

One reason that we should all care about community support for our schools is the dire need our existing school buildings have for repairs and upgrades. Last year, the district hired a consultant to determine what needed to be done for the existing schools in the district. Their report showed in excess of $180 million of repairs and upgrades were needed. 

At this point, the district has not released a plan to address these repairs. To be sure, it will take money, and a lot of it. That money will eventually have to come from fundraising, bonds, tax increases or some combination thereof. Whichever method, there will need to be a community decision that D65 schools are worth opening their checkbook for. When families are leaving and investing their money in their children’s education elsewhere, continued community support should not be taken as a given.

  • Loss of state support – District 65 receives the great bulk of its revenue from local property taxes, and is not shy about taking as much as possible in property taxes. The last vote the board took on property taxes, it approved the maximum allowable increase in its levy – 5.89%. State funding is a relatively small percentage of the district’s revenue, about 7%. 

In 2017, the state passed a new school funding statute. Among the provisions in the statute was a “hold harmless” provision which assured all districts would receive the same level of funding – unless there is a “significant enrollment decrease.” What that means exactly was never completely defined, probably because the vagueness of it made it palatable to everyone. To date, the state has not defined what that means.

However, at some point, the state will find itself in an economic pinch, and one place that they will inevitably look to find some savings is by setting a numerical definition of what that “significant enrollment decrease” term means, because it means that they are being overly generous to school districts that have significantly fewer students in them than was the case when the funding formula was passed.

When that day comes, District 65 will almost certainly find itself on the wrong side of that definition, as we are suffering larger losses percentage-wise than Chicago Public Schools. Perhaps Springfield will spare CPS, perhaps they won’t – but they certainly won’t be sparing those districts with larger enrollment losses than CPS.

But the amount of state support as a percentage is so low, does that really matter? It absolutely does, as the board has expressed on multiple occasions that it is projecting structural deficits in years to come. The pain from whatever cuts are going to going to be needed to address the structural deficit will only be magnified with some loss in state funding.

  • School closures – At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the three Evanston middle schools averaged approximately 750 students; the neighborhood elementary schools, approximately 450 students. Today, numbers alone would appear to justify the closing the closing of one middle school and two neighborhood schools.

And this is before considering the impact of the new Fifth Ward school. If you thought that building a new school building in a district with declining enrollment was madness, be advised: that ship has sailed. The district has already borrowed the money and is committed to having the new building open for the start of the 2025-2026 school year. Its projected 900-student enrollment will come primarily from the north Evanston schools, as students residing in the Fifth Ward will no longer be bused to the north Evanston schools. This leaves a huge issue of unused capacity in north Evanston schools where it will be difficult to justify keeping four neighborhood elementary schools open.

While north Evanston schools will doubtless be on the firing line when it comes time to consider school closures, the district will likely not be able to confine closures to north Evanston only. The reason? The funds for building the new school are going to come from saving money from not busing children from the Fifth Ward. If the district finds itself busing children around North Evanston, those savings are gone – and with it, the money to pay off the loans for the new school. When the day comes to start closing schools, north Evanston schools will probably not be the only ones closed.

Once a school closes, the next issue is what becomes of the property. There is obviously a huge range of outcomes as to what might become of those buildings and the surrounding grounds – they could become community center type buildings, as happened with the former Noyes School building and the former Foster School building. Or they could be sold to developers, and your neighborhood school could be torn down to be turned into luxury condos or McMansions. Whatever becomes of those buildings and playgrounds, this much is true: it will change the neighborhood forever.

The district should be reaching out to families who left to find out why they left and why they have not returned. I don’t believe that a chef should re-work his menu because there is an unhappy diner, but if recurrent themes emerge on this point, prudence would dictate that there be some course correction made. A school district that hemorrhages students at the rate this one has is not a healthy one – and the bleeding needs to stop.

Barry Doyle

District 65 parent

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  1. The evolution in D65 towards lowering of standards has been coming on for some time now. And I think that the role of a school board has been changing dramatically too. I also think that we need a remake of the board towards one that actually supports an overall strengthening of academics. Because other nations are leaving us behind! And it is the future of ALL of our children that will suffer.
    What I have observed in my 57 years in Evanston is that with regards to those who were not doing well academically, instead of finding ways (and there are many!) to raise their expectations about their ability to achieve; instead of exciting them (and their parents!!) about the amazing adventure of learning and what they can do with a good education…. The effort has been gradually to lower the contents of the curriculum and their need for achievement in order to circulate them through the districts and finally “graduate” them from high school. As a minority myself I think it is insulting to be so OBVIOUSLY declaring that we minorities don’t have what it takes therefore “here is a helping hand!” And please check how many students from D65 end up in “remedial” courses at the high school! This is because the two superintendents claim it is the other one’s fault. And of course the solution to this terrible situation where the children are the victims, is CONSOLIDATION. But we tried to put it up for election 3 times and the unions didn’t want it.
    All this leads me to remember former D65 board member Judith Sirinsky’s words at the end of her term, October 1991:
    “I don’t know where we go or what we do but this is possibly the most disappointing thing that I’ve faced in a non-personal experience in my entire life. That I walked through that door, the door of 1314 Ridge almost 12 years ago, with a 40% (gap) which nobody knew about because we weren’t telling anybody! But it was there and I’m walking out the door 12 years later and we still got that same gap. We’ve got a lot of highly paid professional educators in this district but we haven’t done anything about it.”

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful letter-to-the -editor Barry, methinks you nailed it!

    While I don’t have nay children of my own and, I am a product of Lincoln, Nichols and ETHS (’73) … I certainly do appreciate the problem and I certainly benefited from previous school boards and administration’s sensible management approach and policies… which seem to me to be severely lacking these days.

    I’d like to echo what several have said here… VOTE like your neighborhood depends on it!

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas

  3. Thank you for writing this article and highlighting a truly troubling trend. The implications of this will impact everyone who lives in Evanston. D65 losing close to 20% of its customers it truly alarming and the board (whoever is on it) should be refocusing energy on understanding and addressing this challenge.

  4. I’m glad that the author of this letter can acknowledge that “schools are not businesses.” In for-profit businesses, money wins. I would like to remind everyone that public schools are public institutions that have a duty to serve all children, regardless of income. This seems to get lost in ideas about exit interviews and asking families who have left the district why. Maybe families who have left don’t like the changes that have been made to support all students. Also, the racism embedded in comments like “North Evanston schools will be on the firing line” (pitting the building of a 5th ward school against a possible closure of a school in predominantly white wards) is deeply troubling.

    1. Maybe Robin. It is quite possible people are leaving Evanston because they are anti-equity and aren’t happy with their children getting less, so other children who need it can receive more. That is a very real possibility and one that should be unpacked and explored.

      Or maybe there are other reasons that families and teachers are fleeing in droves. I guess we’ll never know until we see some concrete, real, accountable data.

      Maybe the people who left don’t see the value in the new scripted, robot-approved, multiple choice middle school ELA curriculum. Maybe they wanted the district to prioritize research for middle school students, or creative writing, or reading an entire book over excerpts from a basal.

      Or maybe they take issue with this administration’s obsession with testing kids using district mandated materials—that consistently goes way beyond what is necessary to inform quality instruction. Maybe their kids were burned out and had testing fatigue.

      Or maybe they grew frustrated when the administration disbanded the restorative practice coaches that were formally in place. Actually, one coach left the district altogether and is now doing this important work elsewhere because she was so disillusioned with 65.

      Or maybe they didn’t appreciate or agree with the inequitable, inflated spending on administrative raises in comparison to the teachers. Or they were disillusioned with the ever expanding, top heavy district office.

      Or maybe it was the uptick in unresolved violence and chaos that currently plagues many of the schools. That is not a dog whistle: that’s a simple fact. No child should be subjected to unchecked chaos and disorder. Schools are supposed to be safe, nurturing, accountable places.

      Most likely, we’ll never know why these people left and continue to leave because, as we’ve seen time and time again, JEH is more than happy to continue making the same old assumptions for this mass exodus. They’ll continue elevating only the reasons that align with their iron-clad “change is hard when we embrace real equity” narrative. The PR machine is hard at work, morning, noon, and night.

      Conjecture solves nothing. This community deserves to know the truth.

  5. The frustrations are mounting, this is just another instance of why the board needs to turn over. Between the articles about the decline that we are reading on a daily basis and the work Tom Hayden is doing at – I would encourage everyone to visit or John’s facebook page. He’s addressing these issues head on and is the change we need. Either these incumbents are voted out this election or a lot of us will be packing our bags and finally leaving

  6. I guess most of what I was going to say has been said by previous very enlightened people. However have two points:
    One, it used to be that parents were able to be “teachers helpers,” a long time ago when my kids went to school in the 70’s and 80’s. As some in the web say about “classroom helpers,” “Research has demonstrated that parent involvement in the educational process impacts positively on the attitude and conduct of children in school. One significant vehicle for parent involvement is a structured volunteer program.”
    Especially today when there is so many complaining about kids’ behavior in class….. And complaining about the subject matter of what it is taught in class. Parents in the classroom used to be a great experience for both kids and a source of reassurance for the parents who participated. When today there is so much complaining about a switch from academics to a socialized curriculum, parents in the classrooms would direct the aim of public schools back to what they were founded and are funded for.

    My other point is to reminiscence the time in the 70s and 80s when my kids attended Evanston’s schools and the mood was, “ How can our kids beat New Trier’s kids on the Science competition?” Or beat some of the best schools in the country on some other things. However as time passed I became gradually more disillusioned with our schools as I was originally used to very rigorous public schools in Uruguay where I came from where all kids had to take the same many courses in order to be accepted at university, or opt for vocational studies offered by the Labor University of Uruguay or the Catholic University. So coming back to today’s situation….. I could say with certainty that I would have been one of those moms to take her kids out of D65 and 202 and finish their education at home.

  7. Clearly, the school board and Superintendent have a plan. Cut teachers, increase the number of administrative staff, and increase the pay for the admin staff and superintendent. Don’t worry about lowering standards, just pay the admin staff more as you cut teachers. Oh, also incur debt for a new school, hire a principal for this proposed school even when you don’t have a location or need for it. I think that sounds about right for handling these problems.

  8. I understand the concern about loss of student, but to fully appreciate what it means I would also like a benchmark on what is happening to the population of school age children.

  9. I moved out of Evanston in part because of a lack of confidence in the management abilities of the District 65 board. Evanston had been my home for 40 years.

    1. Art, you lack “confidence” in the school board? How can you say that? They have no abilities. I think 8th graders could do a better job.

  10. Thank you, Barry!
    And one more thing:
    Mary Anne Wexler

  11. Mr. Doyle’s excellent piece on the serious problem of families exiting District 65 deserves reading by all Evanston citizens and those who care about public education in our community.
    There are likely many reasons why this is happening, and it’s possible that racial animosity might be one of them. I mention this because often when parents complain about school policies or practices, this is the term that gets bandied about, as if the only possibility a parent would be dissatisfied with a District 65 school could be that they are racists.
    It’s a most unfortunate and misguided position. I believe, based on what I’m hearing from many parents in the community who currently have students in the District, that the way the equity focus is being implemented in the schools is alienating a lot of children, parents, and teachers and leading to more, rather than less, disharmony.
    This is a real shame. I remember when my children were at Dewey School many years ago, and the entire focus of the school improvement team was raising the test scores of the lowest performing children by at least 15%. While this is of course important, there were and always are a range of areas in school communities that need attention and improvement. And sadly, these efforts failed, as the District’s efforts in this direction have been failing for more than a generation.
    I also think it’s a tragedy that the decision to right a true wrong, closing Foster School back in the early 60s in the effort to desegregate Evanston’s schools, by building a new school in the 5th word, has been made. This at a time when the population in that ward is no longer majority African American in any case. And building an elementary school to house 900 students is a horrible idea…huge, intimidating, and possibly frightening and unmanageable for the youngest children who will attend.
    Evanston has a long history of presenting itself as a model for excellence in Evanston, yet it has long failed to deliver the goods, both for the lower end students and the higher end ones. Eliminating the offering of Geometry for advanced math middle schoolers is yet another example of how, in a misguided effort to bring up the lower end learners, the highest end learners are being punished. This is not the way to encourage anyone.
    These misguided policies and basic misunderstanding of what equity really means, which is real fairness and opportunity for everyone, have led to alienation and misery for so many students and families. The ones with the means to do so are leaving the District in droves, and the fact that the District doesn’t seem to want to solve this problem reflects the lack of vision and accountability that caused the problem in the first place.

  12. Thank you for writing about this critical issue. If the current school board and Superintendent continue to lead D65 the problem will only get worse. It’s abundantly clear that their approach has failed. It’s time to start rebuilding D65.