As D65 proceeds with 5th Ward school, environmental advocates ask for commitment to sustainability


Elisa Huang/The Daily Northwestern

Foster Field. The new Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school in the 5th Ward will be built on the field, but parents from the surrounding neighborhood say they’re worried about the project’s financial future.

Casey He and Joyce Li

Evanston resident Janet Alexander Davis’ oldest son attended kindergarten at the Foster School in 1966. Because Foster was in their neighborhood, Davis would walk her son to school every day. 

But a year later, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 made Foster a magnet school. When her son started first grade, he had to be bussed to Lincoln Elementary School, Davis said.

“We had wanted a school to be built in our community for many, many years,” she said. “There’s been many, many efforts at trying to get that done.”

In March 2022, after more than 50 years without a neighborhood school in the 5th Ward, the District 65 Board of Education approved the construction of a K-8 school in the ward. Since then, the district has worked with the city to collect community members’ input about their vision for the school.

Though Davis is excited, she’s also among the many 5th Ward residents who have been advocating for the district to implement more sustainability features in the design.

Alex Lopez, an architect from Cordogan Clark, presented the latest site plan for the school to residents at several community engagement meetings in February. 

A sign with the site plan for a school on a white background.
A sign that shows the latest site plan for the school. According to the plan, the campus includes an L-shaped, four-story school building and an artificial turf field. (Casey He/The Daily Northwestern)

According to the site plan, the campus will include an L-shaped, 115,000-square-foot, four-story school building and an artificial turf field on what’s now Foster Field. The plan will also revamp the parking lot area near the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center but leaves the community center building untouched.

Lopez said the design would include photovoltaic panels, a high-efficiency HVAC system and potential LEED certification — a third-party rating system that assesses buildings on sustainability. 

According to District 65 Chief Financial and Operations Officer Raphael Obafemi, the district will need an additional $10 million to certify the school for LEED platinum, the highest level of certification. To make that more possible, district Superintendent Devon Horton said the district will need to secure outside funding. 

After attending a community meeting, Davis said the design concept left her conflicted. As a co-chair of the advocacy group Environmental Justice Evanston, Davis said she wants the district to commit to as many of the environmental requirements that are part of the LEED certification as possible. 

Jerri Garl, the other co-chair of EJE, echoed Davis’ sentiment.

“LEED is just a checklist,” Garl said. “What we really want is to make sure that the building is non-toxic, that it is energy efficient, that it maximizes daylighting and has all those features for a good learning environment.”

Garl also raised concerns about the potential environmental impact of the artificial turf field. 

She said artificial turf is made of materials like plastic that leach chemicals into the air and water.

This field material is also more expensive and less enduring than grass turf, and the district should use real grass instead, she added.

“We’re talking about rolling up a plastic carpet and taking it to the dump every 10 years,” Garl said. “That’s so far from being environmentally aware.” 

Sylvia Wooller, a member of the district’s Climate Action Teams, said the 5th Ward school would be a “tremendous benefit to kids.”

However, the architect and District 65 parent said she wants the 5th Ward school to be net-zero ready — meaning it would be energy efficient and prepared for renewable energy systems like solar panels to be installed later. To be net-zero, the building would have to produce as much energy as it consumes from the power grid.

“It needs to be all-electric — heating, cooling and water systems,” Wooller said. “The building needs to have increased levels of insulation and needs to be designed for passive solar, or heating and cooling with operable windows.” 

Citing data from the architecture firm Perkins Eastman, Wooller added that the combined cost of constructing, operating and maintaining a net-zero ready school is actually lower than that of a conventional school over time. 

Horton said he appreciates the input from community members. He encouraged 5th Ward residents to share their ideas for not just the school building, but also extracurricular programs and services the school can provide.

At the same time, he said he wants the community to understand the district’s top priority is to build and open the school. 

“We can only do so much, and I would challenge the people in this room and our families in this 5th Ward to understand that we have broken a 55-year issue,” Horton said during one community engagement meeting. “We found dollars to build a school.”

Garl said she disagrees. The district should be looking for other sources of funding — such as state or federal grants — to finance the environmental and sustainable features of the school, she said. 

The district should not compromise on the quality of the school if it means it will cost more money, she added.

“I believe those are excuses,” Garl said. “I think environmental justice decision making (and) the welfare and quality of life of people in the 5th Ward have been subjected to that kind of thinking for generations.”

Nixie Strazza contributed reporting. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @caseeey_he

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Twitter: @joyycee_li

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