Forum highlights potential new school and upgrades for D65

Alan Yu

More than 30 Evanston residents discussed issues of race, science education and classroom capacity at the first-ever public forum Thursday night regarding a proposal to build a new school and upgrade existing ones.

The referendum, promoted by the local group Citizens for a Better Evanston, proposes to build a new K-5 school in the 5th Ward and upgrade existing classroom facilities, particularly science labs at District 65 middle and magnet schools. The estimated $48.2 million required for the referendum would lead to increased property taxes, with the magnitude dependent on a house’s home market value.

D65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy and Katie Bailey, president of the D65 Board of Education, took questions from Evanston residents after the audience watched a 17-minute documentary produced by C4BE co-chair and filmmaker Susan Hope Engel. The film consisted of interviews with D65 school principals, teachers and residents.

“I don’t know how much opportunity most voters have to talk to teachers and principals and hear from their heart how they feel,” Engel said. “To have those interviews woven together brought it to life for many (residents).”

Among other aspects of the debate, the film highlighted the need for better science, technology, engineering and math facilities in D65 classrooms. In one scene, a science teacher at Haven Middle School demonstrated the water supply his science class had access to – he would take a plastic Home Depot bucket, go to the janitor’s room, fill it with water and take it back to the class.

Evanston resident Sharon Smaller , whose daughter attends Kingsley Elementary School, recalled seeing similar facilities during her daughter’s visitation day.

“It just looked like a classroom from the 1960s,” she said. “It was just so un-state-of-the-art.”

Although Amy Osterman, a research technician at Northwestern’s molecular biosciences department, has only lived Evanston for four and a half years, she acknowledged the need for a stronger science program, describing her workplace environment.

“There are three Americans, and the rest are all Chinese and Indian. And that’s fine ­­- science is a global field,” Osterman said. “But I know that the education they received as children in science was far better than mine was. For us to be competitive in the 21st century, we need to provide all Americans in our community with a solid foundation in science.”

Later in the meeting, another Evanston resident questioned the construction of a new school with 18 classrooms when the district only needs four new ones.

Murphy and Bailey replied those calculations presumed all schools would be operating at maximum capacity, with 30 children per 600 square feet, a classroom size that would have schools “stuffed to the gills.”

Another remark often made by opponents of the referendum concerns the loss of diversity at other schools if a new 5th ward school is built, as D65 is 59 percent African-American, according to minutes from an April D65 meeting. In 1960, Foster School closed as part of desegregation efforts and 5th ward residents were bused to other Evanston schools. Evanston resident Nicole Greene said diversity is not the issue.

“When white people are so concerned about keeping the diversity, what is the cost to the minorities who are being used as a political maneuver to benefit their children?” she said.

Greene’s remark drew applause from the audience, which was racially mixed.

“And I think we have to all stand up and say, at some point, it’s not fair,” Greene said. “Now it’s 2012, things have changed and we need to address that.”

Bettye Cohns, an African American and lifelong Evanston resident with two children who went to D65 schools, said although many thought closing the school in the 1960s was the right move, the 5th ward felt the impact several years afterwards.

“Now, they don’t have a community they can call their own,” Cohns said. “Their children are bused to their schools, so it’s difficult to maintain that connection with their teachers, their children’s classmates.”

In addition to Thursday’s forum at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd., C4BE has planned three more discussions before the March 20 vote.

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