Evanston Public Library hosts second virtual discussion about history of school segregation, potential 5th Ward school

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Daily file illustration by Meher Yeda

Evanston Public Library hosted local experts and activists in the second panel discussion in a two-part series on school segregation in the city.

Olivia Alexander, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

Community leaders discussed the movement to open a community school in Evanston’s 5th Ward during a virtual panel hosted by Evanston Public Library Thursday. 

The ward has gone without a neighborhood school since the Foster School officially closed in 1979 when Evanston/Skokie School District 65 sold the building due to its desegregation plan. Currently, the ward’s nearly 700 students are assigned to five District 65 schools. 

Six Evanston Township High School students from Emerge, a leadership and community development program, moderated the event — the second in a two part series about the legacy of school segregation in Evanston.

Henry Wilkins started STEM School Evanston, a group advocating for the construction of a public school in the 5th Ward where children excel in STEM principles and work with the community. He said he hopes to see high family involvement with the school.

Part of Wilkins’ vision is that the school reflects its community. As of 2010, 41.5 percent of residents in the ward are Black, 35.3 percent are White, 14.4 percent are Hispanic or Latinx and 8.8 percent are Asian — demographics he hopes the school’s population would reflect.

Wilkins said a school in the 5th Ward would address inequities in the city and increase family engagement, student self esteem and community integrity. 

“This is feeling good about where you live,” Wilkins said. “This is about pride.”

A study from the city’s Human Relations Commission found that after the Foster School closed, 5th Ward residents felt less positively about their neighborhood, Wilkins said. 

The school would also build parent networks to improve after school program access, Wilkins said, while making life in the ward more attractive. He said STEM careers are in high demand, and the United States is experiencing a shortfall in student math and science performance. 

Currently, Wilkins is conducting a feasibility study to identify a location, potential partnerships with community organizations and ways the school could open without raising taxes or causing other schools to close. 

Wilkins said STEM School Evanston intends for the school to be in District 65, which Superintendent Devon Horton and the school board support. 

Sarita Smith, manager of student assignments in District 65, said the Student Assignment Project Committee will also make recommendations to the district on new school boundaries and decreasing the district’s structural budget deficit. The committee consists of community members, District 65 board members, educators and parents.

EPL Director Karen Danczak Lyons said the library hopes to co-locate a branch in the 5th Ward, potentially within a housing complex, early learning center or school.  

Lyons said libraries have the opportunity to “wrap around the school day” and support students in the morning, after school and on weekends. 

“We really view our work as a community builder and a community support center and a way to engage and support our families and our partners,” Lyons said. “But we’re also viewing our work very intentionally with great focus around equity and racial equity.”

Smith said the committee’s work will be community-driven, transparent and informed by focus groups and surveys conducted in partnership with Northwestern faculty. 

Students may not currently attend local area schools because they receive particular educational services, attend a magnet school or, in the case of the 5th Ward, may not have access to a local school at all, Smith said.

“After the Foster (School) building officially closed (and) was sold, there has not been any movement from the district to really make this happen,” Smith said. “Henry and I know that we stand on the backs and shoulders of giants that have been trying to push them forward, and we are happily taking this baton and really trying to make sure that this happens.”

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