Before admitting that the proposed 5th Ward School faces up to a $25 million cost overrun … before conceding that transportation savings to pay for the school are nowhere near what was stated … and before acknowledging the need for budget cuts on top of all of this … there was a canary in the School District 65 financial coal mine, suggesting all was not well with the supposedly pain-free 5th Ward School proposal.

The Bessie Rhodes School for Global Studies.

Closing the Rhodes building, and moving the entire magnet program to the new 5th Ward school, was a key part of the original 2022 plan, until it wasn’t.

Last month, district officials said the “school within a school” model was dead.

On Monday night, five Rhodes parents addressed a special D65 school board meeting, saying they have been left in the dark about what’s been going on, and what may happen next.

Michelle Nearendorf, the parent of two Rhodes children, typified what was stated.

“To date, we still have no principal and no assistant principal,” she told the board.

“We need leadership,” she added.

Rhodes school parent Michelle Nearendorf addressing D65 school board meeting on Monday evening.

Otherwise, Nearendorf noted, “a continuous vacuum will set Rhodes up for failure.”

Rhodes’ principal, she said, left over the summer, and the assistant principal who had been in charge is no longer there either.

Another Rhodes parent said “this uncertainty erodes our trust in the district.”

A series of documents examined by Evanston Now shows the various problems associated with the ill-fated effort to move Rhodes to the 5th Ward.

Minutes from seven Student Assignment Planning (SAP) committee meetings (March-May, 2023) illustrate how the citizen volunteer panel wrestled with the challenge.

On March 14, for example, one of the panel’s groups said that “ABV [Amplifying Black Voices] Data shows that black families are not interested in TWI (a bilingual program at Bessie Rhodes), but we are saying we’re going to pick up and drop a TWI school into their local school” in 2025-26, when the 5th Ward building is supposed to open.

The primary rationale behind constructing the 5th Ward school in the first place was because children in that ward have been bused to other schools for racial integration, after the all-Black Foster School was closed decades ago.

This apparently led to conflicting impressions on the SAP panel. One point suggested “Evangelize the benefits of the TWI program amongst the black community.” But another said “Don’t have a school within a school and instead focus on integrating TWI within the 5th Ward school.”

There was worry that Rhodes programming (“like Mandarin or international trips) [will] be viewed as for the ‘special’ students.”

And, there was a suggestion to find “ROCKSTAR administrators (ideally afro latino).”

Of course, as the complaining parents noted, there is no top administrator at Rhodes right now, “Rockstar” or otherwise.

As the sessions moved forward, another concern expressed (April 11) was that “Most of the respondents [to surveys about the TWI bilingual option] identify racially as white.”

However, about 1/3 of the 270 students at Bessie Rhodes are 5th Ward residents. If Rhodes were to move to the 5th Ward, it’s possible that many of those primarily Black students would simply prefer the traditional neighborhood school, rather than the Rhodes program, reducing demand for a Global Studies/TWI curriculum.

By the time the SAP committee had its April 25 session, some topics for future consideration were “Can Bessie Rhodes move to a Northern school like Willard?”, and “can we, as SAP … collectively send a recommendation/strongly worded suggestion that the Board reconsider the decision to place Bessie Rhodes in the 5th Ward school?”

Also in April, Interim Superintendent Turner told the board Monday, the administration started receiving planning documents from school designers outlining possible cost overruns for the 5th Ward School.

And on Sept. 21, in a meeting for the Rhodes community, the “school within a school” idea, a proposal which helped sell the Fifth Ward School in the first place, was discussed about why it is now off the table.

Under a segment called “The Reality,” parents were told that issues such as “community feedback (sunlight and height of building), increasing cost of construction and materials,” that “saving green space is a priority for the 5th Ward community ” and the fear of “segregation within the school” were among the reasons there will not be a “school within a school.”

They were also told that a goal is to “honor the Dr. Bessie Rhodes community during the transition.”

But nobody seems to know what that means.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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