Social justice, fiscal responsibility dominate new school discussion

Susan Du

The question of whether to build a school in the Fifth Ward was met with concerns about its social justice as well as fiscal implications at Monday’s District 65 board meeting.

The minority-majority Fifth Ward is the only one in Evanston without its own elementary school. Since Foster School closed in 1979, children from this area have been bused to other D65 schools outside of their immediate neighborhood.

New school supporters cite rising enrollment rates and wavering success with No Child Left Behind as indications the district needs additional space.

Opponents of the measure point to the city’s lack of appropriate financial resources.

Evanston resident Anne Sills suggested that although building a new school might cost a lot of money up front, it will pay off in the long run. She urged attendees of the meeting to question whether Evanston could afford not to build a new school for the Fifth Ward.

“The most significant reason for building a school is that we are able to,” Sills said. “We could if we walked in the shoes of others by listening to their stories and understanding their needs. For the new school, the Fifth Ward will become a stronger place filled with dignity and community. Most importantly, it will bring back the concept of neighborhood to the Fifth Ward.”

Another argument for building the new school is to offer African-American children of the Fifth Ward their own learning community. Some speakers at Monday’s meeting said such students may feel more comfortable around others with whom they share a common heritage.

Seth Jenkins, a senior at Evanston Township High School, recalled moving to Evanston as a child and being “shocked” to walk into class and find that the majority of students were white.

“I would prefer to go to school in my community,” Jenkins said. “I’m just more comfortable with people who have similar life experiences as me.”

On the other hand, local businessman Phil Calian advised the board to consider primarily the fiscal commitment required of Evanston taxpayers to build the new school.

“I’m not a philosopher – I’m a business person,” Calian said. “I want to make sure all of us understand the ramifications of building a new school.”

Calian projected the measure would cost $3.6 million, which he viewed as a challenge for Evanston residents in light of “declining property values and increased financial hardships.”

“It would certainly be a shame if in order to build a new school, we need to close a school,” he said.

Another Evanston resident, Josh Hall, voiced his frustrations with the debate, which he viewed as one of primarily social consequence.

“It always appears to me that when it gets down to the black community in particular, we always run out of money,” Hall said. “There’s just never any money.”

Before an official ballot for whether or not to go through with the new school can be drawn up, details such as location, space utilization, enrollment management scenarios and cost must be finalized. On Oct. 10., the board will hold a working meeting to further discuss the issue.

D65 board member Richard Rykhus urged attendees to keep an open mind about the ultimate decision.

“A lot of people feel this can be a very divisive issue,” he said. “We do have to look at the long-term capacity needs of the district. We do have to address social justice issues that have been raised.”

Rykhus added the board would also have to consider how to improve achievement rates.

“How are we going to ensure our students succeed, and what resources are required to make that happen?” he asked. “The solution we come up with isn’t going to look like exactly what any one person expect it to look, but I do hope it ends up unifying us.”

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