Evanston’s 5th Ward may get its own elementary school

Sarah Freishtat

The New School Referendum Committee met recently for the first time to discuss the feasibility of reinstating an elementary school in Evanston’s 5th Ward. After the close of Foster School 30 years ago, the fifth ward – a minority-majority district just west of Sheridan Road – remains the city’s only ward without its own elementary school.

When the Supreme Court made its controversial Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, schools across the country began desegregating. In 1967, Evanston became the first city in the country to bus children for integration when it began bringing children from the minority-dominated 5th Ward to the predominantly white north side, and from the north side into the 5th Ward. Officials from all over the country came to see students like sixth-grader Jerome Summers attend a white school.

“I went from the safest place in the world to the most hostile place in the world, as far as I was concerned,” said Summers, now a member of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board.

Foster School closed in 1979, after Summers had graduated and gone to college. When the baby boomers left elementary school, there was not enough need for the school.

“Every single other neighborhood in the community has a school that their children can go to and call their own,” said Summers, who is co-chairing the New School Referendum Committee. The committee had its first meeting Jan. 27.

Children in the 5th Ward attend schools that are not in their neighborhood, such as Willard Elementary School, 2700 Hurd Ave., and Kingsley Elementary School, 2300 Green Bay Road. About 580 children attend public schools outside their ward, not including students enrolled in magnet schools and other special programs, according to data Pioneer Local compiled from District 65. Kingsley Elementary and Willard Elementary each have more than 100 students from the 5th ward, and Orrington Elementary has more than 90. The remaining students are divided among 10 other schools.

Evanston elementary schools are running out of space, and building a new school is the best way to solve the problem, Summers said.

Other school board members have suggested a cap-and-transfer system, where the district would cap class sizes and send overflow students to nearby magnet schools. Only about 15 to 20 students would have to be transferred from each school, but parents were unhappy about the prospect of having to send their students to schools that were not part of their neighborhood, Summers said.

“(Parents) said they bought their homes because they wanted their kids to go to their community schools,” Summers said.

For Summers, this highlights the problem with not having a school in the 5th Ward. Businesses and schools are the pillars of a community, he said, because the more neighbors residents know, the happier and safer they feel. The lack of a school on the west side has disintegrated the community because parents and children do not know each other, he said.

But some officials have indirectly indicated that the cost of building a school in the 5th Ward may outweigh the benefits.

District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy and Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl were unavailable for comment. Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) said she was not involved in the effort, but she fully supports a school in her ward.

West side activists said the benefits of having a school in the 5th ward outweigh any costs it may require. Lonnie Wilson, founder and director of the Community Builders of Evanston with deep roots on the west side, said the economic damage the lack of a school has on the community is greater than any cost incurred from building a new school.

“The costs of it not being there is probably immeasurable,” Wilson said.

There have been other attempts to establish a school on the west side, the most recent in 2002. Summers said this attempt is different, because there is an actual need for a solution to the space problem in nearby elementary schools. Summers, a long-time school board member, has championed this issue since he joined the school board.

Other communities around the country are facing similar situations, said Diane Lupke, secretary of the Evanston Community Development Corporation. Ohio has dedicated a large portion of its state budget to revitalizing neighborhoods by building public schools, particularly in the city of Toledo, she said. The city implemented a program called “New Schools New Neighborhoods,” which aims to revitalize neighborhoods around new public schools.

“Having schools within walking distance, fully embedded in the neighborhood, has a stabilizing effect and is a wonderful community gathering point,” she said.

The committee will continue to meet until June, and the members hope to present their findings to the board by early September. All meetings are open to the community.

“This will be good for the whole community, the whole city,” Summers said.

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