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‘A Negative Attitude’: Desegregation harms Fifth Ward residents

January 28, 2022

With Foster School set to establish a kindergarten center in the fall of 1966, one of the main goals was to adapt a program that would entice white parents through curating curriculum centered around students’ needs. Because no students were assigned to the Foster School laboratory kindergarten, administrators needed to ensure white families would apply. Specialists in industrial arts, art, creative dramatics and music were hired to plan and carry out the program. By December, the school board had partnered with the Northwestern University’s School of Education to create this experimental lab school. 

In 1967, the West-Central area of Evanston was the first in District 65 to lose a local attendance center—the all-Black Foster School. Instead, the school became Evanston’s new integrated magnet school for elementary schoolers from across the city. By January, the experimental education program in Foster School was created. The implementation of this lab school came with many adjustments, which included providing consultants for program improvement, setting up local, regional and national conferences and workshops as well as assistance with publishing information about the new programs. 

The lab school’s kindergarten was open to the entire school district and was aimed at desegregating through drawing in white students. The program received over 900 applications for attendance to the school.

  In fact, families across Evanston were trying to get their children enrolled in what would come to be known as one of the most successful innovations in American education. Had the school been located in another ward within the district, it likely would not have been as heavily funded because these funds furthered integration goals. 

In May 1967, the Chicago Tribune published an article covering the impact that grants, such as the Summer Institute for Integration, had on the new lab school, known as Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School. With the new multicultural environment of this lab school, the Summer Institute for Integration provided educators with a training program, emphasizing the education problems with race and new techniques to use in classes, counseling and parental communication. 

Kupu Sumi

Students were given specialized opportunities and educational aids in their classrooms such as projectors, tape recorders, TV equipment and slide viewers. What began as an all-Black population at Foster School before the change to becoming a lab school transitioned into a 25 percent Black population. Of the 650 students that ended up getting enrolled in the magnet school, 75 percent of them were white. 

“Foster School really stands out, because it shows how the city segregated itself and then tried to manage the desegregation process,” Robinson says. “So when the City of Evanston was looking at desegregating the school system, it was kind of using Foster School as the model for that, but not [by saying], ‘let’s diversify communities,’ which is really the way to do it, but [instead by saying], ‘let’s bus students in. Let’s make an experimental school and bus white students in, displacing Black students so they had to be bussed elsewhere, so that we have an integrated model of just one school.’”

With these plans of segregation came a new bussing plan that reassigned the schools that Black children attended. Up to 450 Black children were bussed to other schools under this plan, across the seven catchment areas in Evanston. These children were transferred in order to racially balance the schools— to meet the stated goal of having 17 percent to 25 percent of each school’s student body be Black. 

 The plan to desegregate Evanston schools came with pushback. The community was deeply divided over the District 65 superintendency of Gregory Coffin, who was committed to desegregating Evanston schools. In the April 1970 school board election, with Coffin’s position on the line based on who was on the school board, the anti-Coffin candidates won. The board voted not to renew Coffin’s contract, and he was removed as superintendent on April 17 of that year. However, the integration plan was still set to continue, with Joseph E. Hill becoming the new superintendent after serving as interim superintendent. 

An article published in the Evanston Roundtable in 2019, titled “Foster School: Its Role in Desegregating School District 65 in 1967 and Its Closing in 1979,” found that student enrollment within Evanston was swiftly dropping and overtime transitioned from 10,860 students in 1967 to 8,413 in 1976 and to 7,061 by 1979. By September 1976, College Hill, Miller and Noyes Schools were shut down due to the decrease in enrollment. This prompted District 65 to establish a new plan for its schools.

According to an Evanston Review article published in December 1979 covering the change in Evanston schools over the decade, in November 1978, Hill and the D65 administrators declared a plan to cut $2.4 million from the 1979-1980 school year district budget. This plan also included closing five schools in the next two years, and, by early 1979, the board voted to close Kingsley, Timber Ridge Central and King Lab schools and transfer the King Lab program to join an existing program at Skiles Middle School. 

When Hill analyzed the possibility of reopening the King Lab (Foster) building as an attendance school on Jan. 30, 1979, his original plan had been to transform the King Lab experimental program into Skiles Middle School, while the empty school building would become an expanded administration building.  

But this proposal would have restructured the Black and white students’ bussing program. If Foster School would have been reopened, more students would have needed to be bussed, and consequently, two more school buses would have needed to be utilized. Instead, Hill suggested transforming the preschool program from Miller School to King Lab. Yet again, the Black community was not happy with this idea, due to the risk that Foster School would return to being an all-Black school, especially with programs like Head Start and Family Focus already serving as all-Black programs within the Fifth ward. 

Finally, a 5-2 vote on Feb. 5, 1979 led Foster School to no longer be an attendance area school, with the Foster School building being sold to Family Focus. Although there was much debate over the closing of Foster School, the school board’s decision came down to the fact that Foster’s reopening would affect the neighborhood schools. Due to its size and location, the board would have had to consider school closings like Dewey, Willard or Orrington schools—schools in predominantly white areas. 

On Feb. 8, 1979, the Evanston Review published an article documenting the importance of reopening Foster School within the community. With the decline in revenues and enrollments and neighborhood schools closing down as a result, Evanston school communities came out in favor of keeping Foster School and reopening it as a regular attendance school. 

Many Black residents in Evanston stated that bussing to meet federally mandated racial guidelines had always been a one-way street. Leaders in the Black community claimed it was time for white residents to experience the burden of racial abuse. 

Bennett Johnson, a member of the Coalition of Dignity in Education and Evanston NAACP education chair-man, was an advocate for reopening Foster and said in the Evanston Review, “Bussing Black children out of the Foster area to desegregate other Evanston schools has created negative attitudes among Black kids.”

On March 15, 1979, the Evanston Human Relations Commision (HRC) held a public hearing to give community groups and individuals a chance to express concern regarding the plan of Foster School closing. A large concern was the racial inequity of bussing between white and Black students. The committee argued that the plan ignored the current unequal distribution of minority and Black students, and that the plan was not equitable to Black students. 

A Black student was four times as likely to be distance bussed to school as a non-Black child. And although Black children made up only one-third of the K-5 school population, over two-thirds of all the distance-bussed children were Black. This was the burden of no longer having a neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward. 

According to a Human Relation Commission report from 1979, “A serious shortcoming of the Boards data on the ‘distance busing’ is that the term is used to describe two very different sorts of bussing: 1) transporting children who live too far away from their nearest school; and 2) transporting children to a not-nearest school in order to achieve racial balance.” 

Although the board had agreed to equalize the burden of new bussing, 60 more Black children and 34 non-Black children would be distance bussed in the following 1979-80 school year. 

Johnson, in a statement on behalf of the district-wide parent committee to the EHC, said, “The proposed plan will increase the burden of bussing on the Black children of this city.”

Another concern was the separation of community that the school board decision created. Foster School had become a symbol of continuity for Evanston’s Black community. Its history of being an all-Black school and its use as a social and recreational space left Black residents frustrated and in fear of losing the community it had built. After becoming a magnet school in 1967, Foster School had been used for community-wide benefit. Now, a keystone to community integrity was also being stripped away. 

The proposed plan will increase the burden of bussing on the Black children of this city.

— Bennett Johnson, Bennett Johnson, past Evanston NAACP education chair-man

Superintendent Joseph E. Hill, who had attended Foster School and later returned as a teacher and administrator during the early stages of Evanston’s desegregation era, said if the building were to go unused, “There’s a fear it will slowly but surely turn into something that will be degenerating to the community, not only as an eyesore but as a source of a lot of problems.” 

 Another issue addressed in the statement was the expected discharge of over 140 teachers under the school board’s decision. 1967 was the first year that the district had operated with a focus on hiring Black teachers and ensuring Black educators had the chance to become administrators and principals. But the school board’s decision to shut down Foster school failed to address this issue, leaving them lost on how to proceed. 

Despite these efforts and issues, on March 19, 1979, the School Board voted to approve the new school attendance map which re-drew the school attendance boundary. This effectively distributed students from the Fifth Ward across seven attendance areas, which they would then be bussed to every day. The fact that this approval came prior to when the projected bussing figures had been prepared indicated how little care the district showed towards the implications this would have on the Black community.  

“I think Evanston dropped the ball, and when I say Evanston, I mean the Evanston school system and all the roles that play within that, to reimagine how they looked at neighborhoods, housing and resources,” Robinson says.  

With Skiles Middle School closing in the spring of 1979, the school board decided that King Lab was to be moved into the Skiles building as a complete magnet school. This move is how the Fifth Ward of Evanston wound up with no school at all. 

When Foster School closed, both Black and white students were transferred to different schools for the 1979-80 school year. According to data provided by the district, 96 Black students and 321 non-Black students were bussed to King Lab in 1979-80. 

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