Parents fight for STEM school in 5th Ward


Daily file photo by Oreste Visentini

Parents specified they did not oppose the construction of the 5th Ward school, but instead supported initial plans for the TWI program to be relocated to this school.

Clare Proctor, Assistant City Editor

After going without a neighborhood school in the 5th Ward for more than 50 years, a group of parents are pushing for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics school as a part of continued efforts to bring education equity to the community.

Henry Wilkins, a parent in Evanston/Skokie School District 65, is spearheading an initiative to develop curriculum for a school focused on STEM in the 5th Ward. Wilkins said the group hopes having a STEM school will garner support “across a spectrum of people,” because educators and parents alike value a STEM curriculum for children.

Wilkins has reached out to Northwestern officials for help creating a curriculum, including School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio, who said in an email that he has agreed to meet with parents to learn more about the STEM school.

“No matter your ethnicity, no matter your economic status, no matter your politics, STEM is seen as important for children’s development, in academia and in life,” Wilkins said.

The 5th Ward has not had a neighborhood school since the 1960s, when the district closed the ward’s Foster School as a part of its desegregation plan. Today, students are bussed to schools in other wards, exacerbating education inequality because students miss out on having a school in their community, Wilkins said.

Wilkins said 5th Ward residents have wanted a school in the neighborhood for years. Seeing this concern remain unresolved “really bothered” him, he said.

“Sometimes, there’s the situations where you’ve got to make things right,” he said. “I just got really passionate around this social injustice, that we haven’t been able to crack the code and deliver a school to these deserving kids.”

Wilkins and other parents began working together after the school district decided to turn the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies into a two-way immersion program. The TWI program immerses a class of half Spanish- and half English-speaking students in a bilingual classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Vanessa Alvarado, a 5th Ward resident, had two children at Bessie Rhodes when the district made this change. While the TWI program is modeled to benefit both Spanish- and English-speaking students, Alvarado said the district has not implemented the program at Bessie Rhodes as it is intended because classrooms are mostly Spanish-speaking students.

Since Spanish-speaking students are not practicing English at home, D65 parents said this put these children at a disadvantage in English when they transition from the TWI program to middle school.

Alvarado’s husband, Mark Rochon, said he and his wife were “railroaded” by the district’s decision-making process around TWI at Bessie Rhodes.

“It really left a bad taste in our mouth,” he said. “It also started us thinking about why the 5th Ward didn’t have a neighborhood school.”

Alvarado and Rochon have been working with Wilkins on the STEM school, meeting with officials and acting as a voice for 5th Ward parents, Alvarado said.

Alvarado was disappointed with the response at a meeting with District 65 board members and other school district officials, where she said they made it clear that they were prioritizing the budget and the upcoming uncontested school board election, rather than building a school in the 5th Ward.

“They said they would not even really consider it for at least two years,” Alvarado said. “We were just flabbergasted. This has been an ongoing problem since the ‘60s, and I feel like it is time to address this issue.”

Despite this, Wilkins said the group has reached out to more than 100 community stakeholders — including business leaders, educators and political leaders — to gauge interest in developing a school in the ward. This outreach has been met with “overwhelming support,” he said.

The team will expand its focus to garnering parental support in the spring, Wilkins said.

“It’s one thing to get support from community leaders and parents that used to have kids in the school district,” Wilkins said. “Now, it’s about those parents that have kids that are pre-K and daycare right now, kindergarten, third grade. Those are the parents that we really need to reach out to in making sure that they’re supportive of having this option for a school.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Alvarado’s comments on the TWI program not being implemented as intended. She said she based her comments on conversations with native Spanish- and English-speaking parents in schools across the district, not on her own experiences at Bessie Rhodes.

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