Community members pack historic District 65 school board meeting to establish 5th Ward school


Daily file illustration by Meher Yeda

The 5th Ward has not had a neighborhood school since the district shut down Foster School in the 1960s as part of the district’s desegregation plan.

Olivia Alexander, Assistant City Editor

Evanston/Skokie District 65 teachers, parents and alumni filled the room at Monday’s Board of Education meeting to show support for a student assignment and school plan to construct a K-8 school in Evanston’s historically Black 5th Ward.

After the board members voted unanimously to approve the plan, the room erupted in applause. 

“(The board was) very clear about our commitment to make the school a reality, to close the racialized opportunity gap and to finally address the structural deficit in a meaningful way for the long-term health of the district,” board member Soo La Kim said. “Tonight is one important step among many that we have taken and will take to meet all these goals.” 

The 5th Ward has not had a neighborhood school since the district shut down Foster School in the 1960s as part of the district’s desegregation plan. District 65 elementary school students living in the 5th Ward have been assigned to one of five schools across the district instead. 

Following many past efforts to bring a school back to the 5th Ward, District 65 launched the Student Assignment Project committee last year to examine the school district’s structural inequities and redistricting to ensure equitable access to resources for students across the city.

District 65 Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith led community feedback sessions earlier this month on potential 5th Ward school plans. SAP’s recommendations guided the board’s decision. 

During the Monday meeting, the board also approved lease certificates to fund the school’s construction. At no extra cost to taxpayers, the lease certificates will be repaid through transportation savings from reduced busing in the district, Smith said.

District Educators’ Council President Maria Barroso said the board’s decision aligns with the council’s goals to advance equitable education opportunities for all children.

“As an organization that believes in all children, we strike down bigotry and ignorance,” Barroso said. “We recognize that in the late ’60s, a disservice was done to our students and families in the name of integration.” 

Barroso said the council supports the board’s decision to open a 5th Ward school because it creates a walkable neighborhood school and decreases busing. 

Jasmine Sebaggala, who has worked at Willard Elementary School for 15 years, said she has seen the social impact busing has for students who live in the 5th Ward. 

“I remember as a kid attending Willard school and not being invited to birthday parties, and all the kids will come to school and talk about these birthday parties,” Sebaggala said. “That still happens today.” 

Some board members responded to resident concerns that they have moved too quickly in choosing a plan to build a 5th Ward school. Kim said this type of opposition is racialized discourse obstructing progress many have worked hard for. 

Board Vice President Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said community members resisting change are those who are unable to see the urgency in situations that do not impact them. 

“In our districts, many of us have chosen where we live and had our lives enriched by a neighborhood school,” Lindsay-Ryan said. “We will be the first to tell you how wonderful that experience is for our children, but it has not been an experience available to all, and that is not acceptable.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said when she first ran for the board in 2017, she made it her mission to listen to community members’ needs. She said this decision is a step toward repairing the harm many Evanston residents have experienced as a result of closing a school in the 5th Ward. 

“My children will not have to do this for their children because we are going to get free,” Tanyavutti said. “This generational trauma must stop here.” 

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Twitter: @oliviagalex

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District 65 board approves plan to establish 5th Ward school

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