Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is scrambling to reassure families at Bessie Rhodes school that the move to the new 5th Ward School building will still happen, but differently than originally envisioned.
Closing the Rhodes building and moving the K-8 global studies program to the 5th Ward school (when it opens for 2025-26) was approved by the D65 school board earlier this year.
The concept was called “a school within a school,” with Rhodes having its’ own name and portion of the 5th Ward structure.
But in a message beginning with “Dear Bessie Rhodes Community,” Interim Superintendent Angel Turner and Student Assignment Manager Sarita Smith said that an upcoming public meeting will discuss “how to move forward without a school within a school model.”
Smith told Evanston Now that the district did receive some emails from families wondering if the move was off, and the Rhodes magnet school program would end.
However, Smith said that the Rhodes kids and teachers will still go to the 5th Ward building, but not as a “school within a school.”
“We won’t have the space for a separate administration office, separate entrance,” and “having a separate bell schedule would not work.”
The plan had envisioned Rhodes students attending from 8 a.m.-2:45 p.m., and the K-8 5th Ward students from 9 a.m-3:35 p.m.
Smith said having “two identities” in the same building would be similar to segregating the Rhodes kids away from their fellow students.
It’s still unclear exactly how things will work out, however, with Rhodes’ global studies curriculum.
The message to families had a paragraph called “5th Ward Building Constraints,” which said that while the “school within a school” will not happen, the district wants to determine how to “honor the Rhodes community and legacy.”
The communication also said the upcoming public meeting will “Review the original plan and goal; Understand the City of Evanston’s building amendments,” and discuss “Curricular focus desires.”
The communication also seems to suggest that the City’s “building amendments” had something to do with the end of “school within a school,” although it’s hard to understand how.
District 65’s architects originally proposed the 5th Ward School as a four-story building.
But after community protests that the building was too big and too ugly (one person said it resembled “a jail”), plans were redrawn for a three-story structure.
District 65 did that. There was no public indication that the city forced the building to be shorter, nor does the city have any say in what goes on inside.
City spokesperson Jessica Mayo told Evanston Now in an email that “The city has no purview over the programming within the building, including the number of students.”
That number is not expected to change, despite the building going from four stories to three.
Capacity (K-8) will be 900, although it is expected to open with only 700, including the kids from Rhodes. 5th Ward children are currently bused to a several schools in the district, with many attending the magnet program at Rhodes.
City Council allowed the 5th Ward School to be taller than what is usually permitted at that site, approving D65’s variance request for three stories, when the zoning code calls for no more than two-and-a-half.
Council also added about two dozen conditions, mostly related to parking, traffic flow, and lighting. It’s hard to see how any of those could force an end to the “school within a school.”
The community meeting on the future of the Rhodes program will be at the school on Sept. 21, at 6 p.m.
Another item for discussion that night is expansion of the TWI (two-way immersion) dual English/Spanish language program in middle schools.
TWI expansion might also impact what happens to the Bessie Rhodes program.
Minutes from the City Council meeting where the 5th Ward building was approved noted that “In response to questions, [then-] District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton says it’s likely that the Bessie Rhodes program proposed to be moved to the new school is likely to transition to a two-way-immersion (English/Spanish) program.”
In urging the Bessie Rhodes community to attend, the two D65 officials said “It’s extremely important that we are thoughtful, transparent, and that we deeply engage the Bessie Rhodes community during this time of transition.”
There is a potential irony in all of this.
Once the 5th Ward School opens, District 65 plans to sell the Bessie Rhodes building. The proceeds could help pay for the … 5th Ward School, which may or may not have a global studies curriculum in there somewhere.