Years ago, Janet Alexander Davis, a lifelong Evanstonian and local real estate agent since 1987, got involved with Environmental Justice Evanston after she and her neighbors noticed health problems they believed were related to a garbage dump in the middle of the 5th Ward, where they lived.

She said the majority-Black neighborhood faced environmental racism for decades from unhealthy city-supported facilities like that dump. Davis said she eventually had had enough and decided to advocate for change.

“We don’t know why we have a headache, and we don’t know why our kid comes home always with a lot of mucus in their nose,” she said. “We don’t understand that it’s because of the way the environment was, the way [the neighborhood] was built or whatever is inside of it.”

Lead architect Alex Lopez talks about design concepts for the Fifth Ward school campus.
Lead architect Alex Lopez talks about design concepts for the 5th Ward school campus at a meeting in February. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Last year, the Health and Human Services Department put together the city’s latest Process for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN), which analyzed health inequities and life outcomes by race, neighborhood and income status in Evanston. The report concluded that 5th Ward residents have a life expectancy more than six years less than that of the average Evanston resident and 13 years less than neighborhoods with the longest life expectancy.

Davis said she sees an opportunity to right generations’ worth of inequity in the 5th Ward environment with District 65’s new neighborhood school, which is currently in the works. If the school features clean air, high energy efficiency and other sustainable elements, she argued, then local kids will be healthier and also have a chance to learn about climate action through the building’s operation.

“Why would we build something in 2023 that is not going to be healthy for students or teachers?” Davis asked. “There are those that want to make it seem like, ‘Well, you’re standing in the way of progress. You’re standing in the way of us getting the school built. We just want the school built.’ Well, don’t just build anything. We’re worth more than that.”

A fight to be heard

For more than a year, members of Environmental Justice Evanston, Climate Action Evanston, E-Town Sunrise and the District 65 Climate Action Team have pushed for a 5th Ward school building that incorporates modern standards for sustainability and green energy.

In late February, local LEED-certified architect Sylvia Wooller, who serves as the co-leader of the District 65 Climate Action Team and runs a local sustainable design firm called Remake Architecture, wrote a letter to district leaders on behalf of climate action activists, architects and engineers in Evanston.

In that note, Wooller broke down four things that the district and building architects can do “at little or no additional cost to develop a resilient building.” Those items include:

  • Energy-efficient mechanical systems that provide high quality indoor air
  • Enough windows of modern quality to create abundant natural lighting in the school
  • “Flexible learning environments” constructed from sustainable materials that are conducive to collaboration and socialization among students and staff
  • Design elements that promote environmental stewardship and climate education, like gardens and composting spaces

“There are other environmental frameworks that could be utilized as well,” Wooller wrote at the time. “What’s important is that the district adopt a design process that will ensure transparency and accountability for the resulting project that meets necessary standards of resource efficiency and wellness on behalf of the students and teachers
in the district.”

Wooller, Davis and the rest of the advocates involved in making these recommendations to the district requested a meeting with Superintendent Devon Horton, Cordogan Clark architects and other district administrators. Horton agreed to that gathering, but it never ended up taking place, according to Davis and Wooller.

At community meetings in February, Horton and representatives from Cordogan Clark said they are hoping to achieve some level of LEED certification for the building, but they did not specify how far they could go. Limited funding is the main barrier at play, Horton said, because incorporating the highest-quality LEED Platinum features, for example, would cost an additional $10 million.

“We can only do so much, and I would challenge the people in this room, and our families in this 5th Ward, to understand that we have broken a 55-year issue. We found dollars to build a school,” Horton said at a Feb. 4 meeting. “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.”

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

District 65 has said that it is hiring a third-party sustainability consultant to advise on the school development, which Wooller called a positive first step. But Davis and fellow Environmental Justice Evanston member Jerri Garl said Evanston has the ability to fundraise private dollars to make the building as sustainable as possible, if the district and the city pool their collective resources to make that happen.

In an email to the RoundTable on Wednesday, District 65 spokesperson Melissa Messinger went a step further in making a commitment that the district had not publicly stated before.

“We are committed to pursuing Silver or Gold LEED certification with the most sustainable design possible within our budget,” Messinger said. “We look forward to continued teamwork and discussion within our community as the project evolves.”

Where things stand now

Last month, Cordogan Clark’s Alex Lopez officially applied for zoning approval from the city to build the new school on the site of Foster Field along Simpson Street. The rendering below shows the currently proposed exterior of the building from each direction.

Renderings of the Fifth Ward school exterior submitted to the city by architect Cordogan Clark. Credit: Cordogan Clark

The city’s engineering and urban planning staff has provided feedback to Lopez in a review letter and zoning analysis shared publicly online.

“New institutional resources, such as the proposed 5th Ward School, should embody
excellence in design and provide opportunities to physically represent and celebrate the community or population it is intended to serve,” the staff review letter stated. “The design should be revised to develop human-centered, creative and authentic design solutions and the use of materials that complement the existing built heritage of the neighborhood and city at-large. The design should be people-oriented and scaled, and provide opportunities to be alive with activity and visual interest.”

Moving forward, District 65 officials and the architects are hosting their next community meeting with design updates and opportunities to provide feedback at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 13 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.

Horton will not be in attendance, as he is scheduled to meet with school board members and residents in DeKalb County, Georgia, where he is slated to become the next superintendent in the coming months. The leadership transition District 65 will undergo this year could complicate the school project, Wooller said, as someone else will be making final decisions on design elements starting this summer.

Raphael Obafemi, the district’s chief financial officer, has experience in making decisions on construction and design, and he will be around to guide the transition between Horton and the next superintendent, according to Messinger.

Despite the battle that environmental activists and climate action groups are facing when it comes to pushing for a sustainable 5th Ward school, though, all of them agreed that a neighborhood school will foster an improved sense of community. Plus, fewer buses moving in and out of the 5th Ward means less air pollution, Davis added.

“It’s going to be built. There will be a school there. And I think, just like life, you have to suck it up. You don’t always get what you think you want or what you think is best,” Davis said. “So I look forward to a building there, and I hope it works out.”

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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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  1. How about including tornado resistance and a “safe room” for all the occupants of a new school? FEMA 320 puts all of Illinois in the high risk zone for extreme winds. FEMA P-361 has guidance for community “safe rooms.”