More than 80% of Black residents surveyed as part of the Amplifying Black Voices project want to see a multipurpose space in the new Fifth Ward School dedicated to science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education, researchers said at a community talk-back meeting Wednesday night.

Tasha Nemo (from left), Oliver Ruff and Tad Block discuss their experiences in Evanston schools during a community talk-back meeting Wednesday, May 10. Credit: Richard Cahan

About 75 Evanstonians came to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center to talk about the findings of the research project, which surveyed nearly 400 Black residents about their own experiences in local public schools.

“There’s a stereotype, and I say this as an artist myself, of Black folks, that we want music, entertainment, to drum and dance and sing,” said Gilo Kwesi Logan, a diversity and leadership consultant who facilitated the talk-back event on Wednesday. “And we do that. However, STEAM, that’s where the value lies, and this is part of African culture and African history and African people. We have to, somehow, get ourselves and our young people to see the connection between the two. We’re a holistic people.”

A majority of the survey respondents live in either the Fifth or Second Ward, and more than 40% are between the ages of 35 and 54. The data collected ultimately revealed that most Black Evanstonians want schools to hire more Black educators, administrators and support staff to show local Black children that they belong and that they matter. They also want to see schools incorporate Black history and culture into the curriculum more often.

When researchers asked about experiences with and perceptions of local schools as they currently exist, though, respondents made clear that “they do not believe teachers are invested in Black student success,” according to one of the project’s key conclusions.

“I never had a Black teacher in middle school or high school. Everybody felt that the encouragement [for us] was left at elementary school,” said Terri Shepard, who in 2006 helped found Oakton Elementary School’s African Centered Curriculum (ACC), another program that survey respondents wanted to see expanded. “We all had issues where we performed above our ability, but it wasn’t recognized. We weren’t encouraged. … Things have not really changed as far as encouraging Black students without the emphasis or the support of Black staff and parents.”

Several people in the crowd on Wednesday had attended the old Foster School, the former neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward that closed permanently in 1979 after also ending its community school status in 1967. Delores Holmes, the longtime Fifth Ward council member, said most of her teachers at Foster were white, but they made every effort to support the school’s majority Black student body as best they could.

Later in her schooling, though, Holmes said she encountered many more problems and less support in middle school and high school.

“As Delores Holmes said earlier, most of the teachers we had at Foster were white teachers, but let me tell you about them. They had heard the hype about how dumb Black people were, and they knew that was not the truth, and they were determined to teach us,” longtime resident Charline Nyomo said. “I am concerned about race and its impact, but it’s about humanity. I think the biggest barrier to moving forward is an inability to accept the truth. … A lot of these lies come from ego. We’ve got to get past that.”

Like Nyomo and Holmes, everyone in the audience at Wednesday’s gathering was concerned about Black children in Evanston getting the trust, attention, encouragement and access to opportunities needed to succeed in school.

Encouragement from teachers is often more important than teachers setting strict expectations, Logan said, because students need to have the belief in themselves that they can accomplish what they set out to do.

Some of the survey data, which was collected by lead researcher kihana miraya ross of Northwestern University, showed that Black families want their kids to have access to rigorous courses and the encouragement and support from their teachers to enroll in those classes and do well in them.

“In comparison to current perception from previous perception, not much has changed, or it’s gotten worse,” said Sergio Hernandez, president of the District 65 School Board. “I know we have been trying so hard as a district to really try to embed equity and access. We now have to work on the piece around inclusion and making sure that people feel like they belong and are supported.”

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. The headline was ‘Black Evanstonians want STEAM classes…’ but there is a point that applies to all students and schools
    The article refers to ‘…science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education.’ But S.T.E.M. was to promote science, technology, engineering and math in schools and industries. But schools started adding in other things [Northwestern University—added economics, journalism so foreign students could get more visas]. No telling what others schools add—music, sports, art, …’ i.e. throw in everything they feel like to get funding.
    Look at Evanston publications and news, all newspapers, TV even PBS news—stories about arts, sports, music–obituaries don’t even mention world class scientists But not students with STEM academic accomplishments.
    No wonders Evanston students don’t view STEM as important.