A school to call their own

Jackie Chiang

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Although he first attended Foster School in 1927, more than 70 years ago, Evanston resident Allen Price remembers the school was just like any other one.

“Foster was a good school,” Price said. “A lot of good people came out of the school.”

The former Foster School, 2010 Dewey Ave., was the Fifth Ward’s neighborhood school for more than 60 years. The ward has been without a neighborhood school since 1967.

With last Monday’s decision by Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s school board to approve a new Fifth Ward school, much attention has been paid to finding a location for the school. In October, the administration proposed that a kindergarten through third-grade school be built in part of the Family Focus building — the former Foster School.

Many older residents of the area once attended the school and had family and friends who did as well. But over the course of its existence, Foster School underwent dramatic changes that altered the experience of pupils who attended it.

Price recalls walking to school, living in an area with many white families, and playing with both black and white pupils during recess. But Jerome Summers, an Evanston resident whose family has lived in the Fifth Ward for more than 100 years, has experienced a very different environment.

Summers attended Foster School in the 1960s from kindergarten through the sixth grade. By that time the ward and student population were mostly black. When Summers was in the sixth grade, District 65 began implementing its integration plan, and Summers — like many other black pupils — was bused out of the area to Lincolnwood Elementary School.

Eventually, Foster School was closed entirely, and all Fifth Ward pupils were bused to other schools. The building was sold to Family Focus, a service organization that creates social programs primarily aimed at the area’s black population and still operates there to this day.

Negotiations with Family Focus have not been settled, but the Fifth Ward again could have a neighborhood school where Foster School once stood.

Dino Robinson, a professional graphics designer, is the publisher and curator of “Shorefront,” a journal dedicated to the development of the black community in the North Shore. He has studied the history of Foster School and how it relates to the growth of the black community.

In 1905, Foster School was established as a kindergarten through eighth-grade school in the Fifth Ward. At its start, the school’s student population was 99 percent white, Robinson said. But by 1924, the school was about 60 percent black, and the number jumped to 85 percent black by 1928. In 1945, the student body was 99 percent black.

The dramatic increase in black students resulted from segregation and restrictive housing guidelines, which said homes could not be sold, leased or rented to blacks or other nonwhite minorities outside of the Fifth Ward. These policies led to concentrations of minorities and residents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds within the Fifth Ward — a trend that still exists today.

Although the student population became increasingly black, the staff at Foster School was entirely white, with the exception of the gym teacher. Minority teachers could be found in Chicago and in churches, but they were not allowed to teach in Evanston schools. During the 1930s and 1940s, community members pressured the district to hire more minority teachers. The school hired its first black teacher, Patsie Sloan, in 1944, and more minority teachers eventually were added in the ’40s and ’50s.

In the ’60s integrating schools became a priority for District 65 for a number of reasons: overcrowding at Foster School and Dewey Elementary School, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and community pressure. The end result was that black children from Foster School were bused to other schools — primarily white-populated schools.

Most Evanston residents initially believed busing was a good idea, but desegregation soon became a sore point for many Fifth Ward residents.

“They came to believe that their hearts were in the right place,” Robinson said. “But busing was a mistake.”

Summers echoed the negative, disruptive impact of busing — for him it was an abrupt move. His family and neighbors had a history of going to the same school. Although he said Lincolnwood’s pupils were accepting and open of the bused pupils, he believed teachers did not want them there.

“It was hard to go from a place where you felt safe, protected and encouraged to a place where you were looked at as a problem child,” Summers said.

From 1966 to 1967, talks began of creating a model laboratory school to replace Foster School. The new school was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Experimental Laboratory School — or King Lab School. King Lab, which housed kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils, was intended as a magnet school to attract white pupils to the ward. White pupils were bused from other schools in the district to the Fifth Ward, and more black pupils were bused to other schools.

This plan lasted for only a few years. Shortly afterward, King Lab moved to the former Skiles Middle School, and the old Foster School building was abandoned. The site was left in disrepair for many years, and neighbors frequently complained about it to the city, Robinson said.

In 1979, District 65 looked into re-establishing Foster School. This move would have required the district to close down several other schools, redraw attendance boundary lines and shift the burden of busing off black pupils. The district rejected this proposal, and the Foster School building was instead sold to Family Focus.

Although one reason for the closing of Foster School was integration — busing both black and white pupils to different schools — many Fifth Ward residents have said the district’s goal was actually desegregation — only busing black pupils out of the ward and allowing white pupils to remain at neighborhood schools.

The effects of busing and lack of a neighborhood school have been lasting and profound. Residents point to the lack of community and commonality with each other, since they cannot easily form relationships because their children go to different schools. Some families said they feel no attachment to schools, especially since pupils in the same families often go to different schools.

“Kids bring a neighborhood together,” Summers said. “If you want to divide a community, (taking away a school) is one insidious, long-term way to do it.”

Not only is busing physically detrimental, with pupils often waiting outside in cold weather for late buses, many studies and test scores demonstrate there is a wide achievement gap, with low-income and minority pupils’ poor performance. Many of these pupils come from the Fifth Ward, and residents have said Fifth Ward children have no interest in learning.

“At Foster, you were expected to behave, do well and know something,” Summers said. “When you expect a lot (from kids), you get a lot out of them. That’s not what’s happening now.”

The push for a Fifth Ward school results from the need to address these issues, especially the achievement gap and the burden of busing. Although Robinson said many residents like the idea of bringing back Foster School with its historic sense of community, many others are more concerned about having a school at all, regardless of location.

“I think everyone should have a school,” Price said. “I don’t care where they have it, as long as kids can walk to school.”