Did you know that Evanston's 5th ward is the only ward without a school? It hasn't had a school, despite several efforts over the years to establish one, since the almost all-Black Foster School closed as a neighborhood school in 1967 as part of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 desegregation plan, and closed completely in 1979.
Today, says Henry Wilkins, Black Evanston students travel the furthest to get to school than any other racial group.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Wilkins has been tirelessly spearheading an effort to finally ensure that families in the 5th ward have a school close by. His vision is a community school focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The hope is that some of the funding for the school will come from taxes recently earmarked for reparations, but it will take everyone's support both in endorsing and funding it for it to become a reality.
As Wilkins says, this school should have opened "yesterday." His hope is that it will open in Fall of 2022.
Recently, DE talked to Henry Wilkins, who works in corporate finance and who has lived in "Skevanston," for the past 15 years (his kids attend D65 schools), about the school.
Listen to the interview to learn the history of how the 5th ward lost its school and how you can help bring one back. The printed transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Also: make sure to listen to the new Serial podcast "Nice White Parents," which does an excellent job asking questions about the 60-year relationship between white parents and "the public school down the block."
DE: Would you want your kids to go to this STEM school if it existed?
HW: I love the question. I have two kids. My oldest daughter is 10 and she's in the fifth grade at Walker elementary school, and then my son, who's six years old, is in the first grade at Walker. And if the school was open today, they absolutely would be going to what we think will be a wonderful school.
DE: And what inspired you to embark on this effort to bring a school to the 5th ward?
HW: The journey started two-and-a-half years ago, I was actually triggered by learning about the situation at a school board meeting. So there was a gentleman by the name of Bruce King who stood up at the podium during public comments and said, 'Hey, now's the time to open a school in the 5th ward. We've been wanting a school and all the problems that we're seeing would go away if we had a school.' And my head turned, and I looked at the podium and I said, 'What is this guy talking about?' And I did some research and learned, in fact that yes, you know, almost 40 years ago there was a school in this community, and they closed the school to to desegregation.
And, you know, there's been a fight to return a school. My heart broke, because I knew that not having a school close to where you live does put a strain on your educational experience.
There have been studies that have proven that Black folks, particularly in Evanston, have to travel further than any other demographic in Evanston. In addition to that, studies have proven that the most reasonable way to fix this inequity really, is to open a school in the in the 5th ward. And so, for me, the drive is all about the kids and, and trying to improve their academics and educational experience.
DE: Why is the 5th ward the only ward without a school?
HW: So you have to go back, you know, 40, 50 years ago and Evanston wanted to be progressive in terms of integration. And when they were trying to be one of the frontrunners in terms of integrating the schools, they had to come up with a plan. Back then, Foster was a 95 percent Black school. And they said, Okay, well, in order to integrate the schools, we have to figure out a way where Blacks and whites can go to school together.
And Dr. Coffin, the superintendent of District 65 at the time, knew that he would have a difficult time convincing white families to come to the 5th ward and help integrate the 5th ward. And he felt it was easier to convince Black families to, essentially, achieve one-way busing.
There's a memo. It's all in the memo. He knew that integrating the schools and forcing all the Black folks to do one-way busing was unfair. He knew it from day one. And so I think there was just a lack of empathy, respect for Black folks and their education. It felt like, 'Okay, I'm gonna put all the burden of diversifying the schools on the backs of the Black kids.' And that's what's been going on for decades. It's convenient to just shut down an all Black school and have them be the ones to integrate the schools across Evanston.
DE: How many people have tried to get a school into the 5th ward , and what happened with that?
HW: There are two pursuits on record for sure. The most recent one was back in 2012. There was a referendum on the ballot, a $45 million referendum that would have gone to building a brand new school. And it It fell short. The referendum passed in the 5th ward overwhelmingly, passed in the 2nd ward, also passed in the 8th ward. If you look at the demographics, they're pretty diverse.
The referendum took a beating in the 6th and 7th wards, where there is very little people-of-color representation. And one of the arguments being, Hey, if you open the school, you're going to take away the diversity for MY kids. So there wasn't a big push back to say, 'Hey, you know, it's not fair for you to expect Black kids to integrate your children's school.'
Before that, the school board actually had a plan to open a kindergarten- through-third-grade school. And I believe it was going to be at Family Focus. They had it all figured out.
And a year later, the school board felt like they were going to be in a financial deficit. So they pulled the rug out and said, You know what, we need to save this money, and we're not going to open the school.' So that didn't happen.
DE: And why did you choose to focus on a STEM school?
HW: Yeah, so STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. There's three main reasons: the first reason is there's a lot of job opportunities for individuals that have a STEM background; the second reason is studies have proven that the United States is behind other developed nations in terms of math and science, so this is about increasing America's standing in the world, if we're able to close that gap; the third reason is that STEM provides a lifelong love of learning. We felt it would provide a good foundation for kids no matter what they pursue in life.
DE: How do you hope that the school would close the opportunity gap that we see in District 65?
HW: So we did some studies. We went on the Illinois report card website. And we did an analysis to understand what is the opportunity gap across all the schools in D65, and what we found is that in the four schools that 5th ward kids are assigned to the opportunity or achievement gap is the widest.
Now you can say it's the teachers, you can say it's the principal, you can say it's having to get on a bus. I mean, there's a lot of reasons one might say the gap exists. But one of the things that we're hoping is the school would help make it easier for parents to participate in their kids educational experience. We know that it's a barrier to participate in plays, to participate in sports, because you have to get on the bus by a certain time.
We know it's difficult to attend PTA meetings or parent teacher conferences when you have to travel a long way to get to the school at the end of the day.
You know, kids are going to school hungry because they have to get up so early, so they actually have programs in place such as Books & Breakfast, to address that issue.
We know when parents are more engaged, kids' academic results improve. The other component of the vision is that it be a community school so they provide wraparound services--before school, after school, and on weekends. The community component is key for the vision.
DE: What kinds of barriers have you faced trying to make this happen?
HW: Yeah, so I would say, you know, making it a priority. having the school board and school administration say opening this school is at the top of the list.
So number one, it's got to be priority. Number two, funding. We've met with different school board members that all expressed support for it. And then the follow up question is, how are you going to pay for it? And initially we pushed back and said, Hey, you know, we're just about building community support for this vision. And we don't run the finances. We don't run the books for the school district. So it's your job to figure out how to pay for it. That was their initial reaction and response.
However, we've taken a new approach in order to avoid some of the shortcomings in the past. Our belief now is that we're gonna have to find a way to show how to pay for the school that isn't going to require a capital referendum, that isn't going to require closing schools.
And so we're in the process of hiring a firm to come up with with proven ways to pay for the school that doesn't put a burden on the taxpayer and wouldn't require closing of a school.
And the other barrier, I'll say is that it's systemic racism. It was systemic racism when Foster school was taken away from the community. It's systemic racism that diversity is on the backs of Black and Brown kids in Evanston.
DE: Is there opposition in the community to your idea of bringing a STEM school to the 5th Ward? And if so, is it more from white people or Black people?
HW: So in short, we've gotten really positive response responses to the idea. There is some level of skepticism on how to pay for it. I had a conversation with a billionaire and he said, it's a pipe dream to think you can do this. He said, you need four or five billionaire families in Evanston. You have to find out who they are, and my family is one of them. So that was, you know, an example of a conversation.
I do hear some concerns around folks that live in Evanston saying that their property taxes could go up. Which is sad, because there's almost this fear of any investment being a bad thing.
The other thing that we're continuing to try to figure out is how do you ensure that you're serving the families that you intend to serve? So the 5th ward is experiencing gentrification right now. And we know that the percentage of Latinx residents is growing and the percentage of African Americans is decreasing. We know that there's reparations happening that plans to stop that trend from continuing. We're constantly are trying to make sure that it's not going to cause any unexpected consequences.
I often times show folks the example of King Lab., which is a magnet school, focuses on art. They actually prioritize 5th ward families, but it's open to all students. That attendance model is what we want this school to have. Prioritize families in the 5th Ward, making sure that every family that wants to attend this school has an opportunity to attend, and make it open to all of Evanston.
DE: Which community leaders and members have expressed support for the school?
HW: Obviously Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward Alderman. The late Hecky Powell. Former 5th ward Alderman Delores Holmes. We've with Mayor Steve Hagerty, we've talked to US Representative Jan Schakowsky, State Rep. Robyn Gabel, former school board members Keith Terry, Terri Shepherd. We've talked to both Dr. Goren and Dr. Murphy. We've talked to over 100 stakeholders, even the District 202/Evanston Township High School (ETHS) superintendent.
If there's anyone that's of influence in education, chances are we've we've talked to them, and it's it's all been positive.
DE: Do you have a target date to open or to begin some type of work on the school?
HW: I would say we're in the foundational stages. We believe this school should have been opened yesterday, to be quite frank and honest about it. So we're working as quickly as possible to make that a reality. The foundational work is centered around how do you pay for the school, proving it out? Understanding what the feedback is in the community. Making sure our vision aligns with what the community wants. For example, there might be interest that the school have a heavy focus on music or the arts, so that might need to be incorporated into the vision.
We believe that King Arts already is the expert in the arts, and it owns that space. However, the school might need to incorporate that. So we want to do some research around that. But ideally, it's to open it as soon as possible. Fall of 2022.
DE: And do you have a location in mind?
HW: So part of the feasibility study would be to understand what are some ideal locations. The idea would be to partner with existing nonprofit organizations. So for example, maybe partnering with the McGaw YMCA - Evanston or partnering with Northwestern University. We would have to figure out. Does it make more sense to refurbish an existing building? Just thinking through what the different options are. And I think that decision will also play a role in terms of decide determining when the school would open. You know, obviously to refurbish a building takes less time than building from scratch.
DE: How are you planning to fund the school?
HW: Priority number one is to make an additional D65 school. The building could be funded through reparations money, it could be funded through private donations.
As far as the operating of the school, the only way you can make that happen is for D65 to actually pay teachers, pay principals, pay support staff.
DE: Do you think that the police murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake have increased support for the school and increased the momentum to make it happen?
I would say it's mixed. We did get some donations soon after that with some of the rallies that happened. But I wouldn't say that there's been this overwhelming outreach to our group asking how to how to help. I think part of the reason is that people are having a difficult time understanding how some of the systemic issues might contribute to some of the things that happen later on.
It seems the focus is more on helping those who are incarcerated. Or doing a drive for school supplies. I think, you know, those killings helped with that because people could see the immediate, you know, Boom! I can do something right now. And people can feel it, touch it.
The school is such a long process. And I think it takes more for folks to understand that, you know, if I were to contribute to a feasibility study, it's an investment to hopefully open the school faster, which will keep kids engaged in school. And it could help with the education of Black history, for instance, and people would be more appreciative and more empathetic to Black folks in general.
And it could avoid some of the things that we're seeing play out with, it's not just police. I mean, it's just just normal citizens that are also creating a dangerous environment. I'll just say that.
DE: Do you think the fact that the demographics of the 5th ward are changing will help the school finally become a reality? Does having more white families in the 5th ward mean that finally there will be support for school after all these years?
HW: I know a lot of people have said that the more white people that move to the 5th ward, people will listen. I'm sad to think that that's what it takes. We can't think about that right now. Our focus is to try to help the Black and brown kids in in Evanston as quickly as possible.
I would rather us help who's here than just abandon them and say, 'Oh, well, you know what, I'm just going to wait till the entire 5th ward is turned over and there's very little people of color, and just let them open a school and when that population shift happens.' But I understand why people feel that way. It's unfortunate that it would take white voices and white complaints in the 5th ward to to get the school to return. But, I mean, that's that's kind of the reality.
The other thing that's interesting is we're finding a lot of folks that are moving to the 5th ward never knew there was a school. So to them they've kind of almost accepted the fact that their kids have to travel further to go to school. They they don't know the history to know that there was a school up the street from where you live, you know, 40 or 50 years ago.
DE: What would you like to say to hopefully gain more support for this school becoming a reality?
HW: Yeah, so we could use general advocacy, public support. We post on Facebook. So, 'like' the post, share the post. We do Instagram, Twitter. We're trying to increase our our traffic in that platform, you know, talk positively about it, helping to spread the word. You never know who you're going to run into, what conversations are going to lead to, maybe another breakthrough for us.
The focus is trying to raise money to do the feasibility study. The cost for phase one is about $35,000. So we're looking at grants, we're looking at high-wealth organizations to chip in, we're doing the market research, there's a cost for that. We're exploring all things right now. We don't have that money. So it's the seed money. Once we have the feasibility figured out, making sure that the vision aligns to what the community wants, there will be a bigger push.
DE: So where can people find you? What's your email and where can people go to donate?
HW: Go to stemschoolevanston.net. You can donate there, check out more details of the vision, the type of school we're thinking about, there's some information on the history of past pursuits.
And email us at email@example.com.
And if you want to volunteer, you can sign up on the website. For those that are interested in getting a tax benefit for donations, we've actually just applied to be a 501(c)3, so we're hoping to get a ruling shortly.