District 65 approves plan for Fifth Ward School

Facing a current budget crisis and record levels of low enrollment, District 65 is returning to the historically contentious idea of redrawing school attendance lines within their elementary schools. The plan would confront the budget crisis by reducing busing costs and enabling more students to walk to schools in their neighborhood, while a trade-off of the plan involves closing magnet school Bessie Rhodes in order to create a new attendance map.

The last time the district pushed for a Fifth Ward school in 2012, they proposed a property tax hike referendum to fund the plans. However, the referendum was shot down by voters, effectively ending the push due to a lack of funding. A new Fifth Ward school is estimated to cost between 18 and 20 million dollars. To prevent a repeat of what occurred in 2012, the district plans to avoid a tax referendum altogether by redrawing district lines to reduce busing costs. While the reduction in busing is estimated to save the district over two million dollars annually, that is expected to only fund a fraction of the total cost for the new school. 

Multiple ideas have been proposed to the D65 school board for the actual implementation of the redistricting. A series of school board meetings at the end of February narrowed down the plan to two scenarios. In the first proposed scenario, a brand new K-8 school would be built in the Fifth Ward near the corner of Simpson and Ashland behind the Fleetwood Jourdain Community Center. Under this plan, K-8 magnet school Bessie Rhodes would be closed and their global studies and immersion programs such as TWEE would be incorporated into Evanston’s magnet school, King Arts. 

The second proposed scenario would bring a brand new K-5 school to the underrepresented Fifth Ward. Bessie Rhodes would still close and King Arts would become a non-magnet school, making it a neighborhood attendance school for the 2nd ward. Under this plan, there would be no more magnet schools left in Evanston, making all elementary and middle-schools neighborhood-based attendance. Both plans would bring a new school to the Fifth Ward and reduce busing costs during the current budget crisis. 

Both proposed plans are aimed at making access to education in Evanston more equitable and enabling all D65 students to attend schools close to home. 

The Fifth Ward has been without a school for over four decades since the closing of Foster School back in 1967. Many residents feel that a neighborhood school is what the ward needs, seeing that every other ward in Evanston boasts a neighborhood school. Additionally, many parents feel that their children have suffered a great injustice by being bused across the city over the past decades. 

“Growing up, my mom was a single mom with five kids. In order to get to school on time, I was driven at six in the morning to wait at my aunt’s house for two hours, where I was [then] bused across Evanston to Walker Elementary School. In the afternoons, I was bused back to my aunt’s

where I would wait two to three hours to be picked up,” junior and Fifth Ward resident Ca’ron “CJ” Walker recalled.

Communities members hope that a new school in the Fifth Ward will promote a sense of community and belonging.

“[There are] a lot of families who don’t feel as comfortable going into other neighborhoods to advocate for their students because of fear that the institution won’t relate to them culturally, and so I think that’ll change. You’ll have parents who feel a lot more ownership around the school who will participate more in their students’ education,” Fifth Ward alderman Bobby Burns said. 

The plans are set to be voted on by the school board in the spring, and if approved, it is not yet clear when the new boundaries will be drawn. However, to aid in the transition for students and families alike, the district will ease restrictions on permissive transfers to accommodate students who want to stay in their current school after moving across attendance lines. The district, however, will likely not continue to provide busing to those students. 

“There’s a real cohesiveness that neighborhood schools create. … [The Fifth Ward has] been fractured through the years, and it’s lost a lot of its institutions from the hospital to community centers,” Burns said. “I think this [school] is really going to unify the ward.”

*The Evanstonian reached out to District 65 Superintendent Dr. Devon Horton and did not receive a response for comment