Eric Sunlly plants oak sapling in flower pot at school site dedication.

Five-year-old Eric Sunlly grabbed a shovel that was nearly as tall as he is and poured some planting soil into a flower pot at the Tuesday afternoon dedication of the site for the new 5th Ward School.

Inside the pot, a tiny oak tree sapling, still attached to the acorn.

That sapling, and another, will be watered and fertilized for more than two years, and then planted at the long-awaited school when it opens in 2025.

“We will keep them safe and foster them,” said District 65’s sustainability director, Karen Bineta, about the young trees.

Bineta’s use of the word “foster” was probably just coincidence, but the 5th Ward School will fill a gap in the ward caused by the closing of the old segregated Foster School decades ago.

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton told the more than 100 people at Tuesday’s dedication ceremony that the new school will be “more than just a building, but a symbol of hope to the children of this community.”

Artist’s rendering of 5th Ward School.

Michelle Cain was once one of those children.

Cain, who lives in the ward, was in the last class in the Foster building, which closed in 1979 after several years as King Labs magnet school. (Foster’s days as an elementary school ended in 1967, when District 65 implemented a desegregation plan).

“I wouldn’t miss this dedication for the world,” Cain said.

She had just finished 5th grade when the building closed for good as a school. (It has since become the Family Focus social services hub.)

Cain said her parents and grandparents had gone to Foster when it was a virtually all-Black neighborhood school.

Putting a school back into the ward, she said, is “historically long overdue.”

5th Ward students have been bused to other parts of town following the closing of Foster/King Labs.

School Board president Sergio Hernandez said that “Black, brown, and working class white children will no longer bear the burden of diversifying the district,” once the school board-approved building is up.

However, opening the $40 million, K-8 school will take longer than originally expected when the board voted “yes” in 2022.

Plans were first to have the structure ready for students in the fall of 2024. But a study of whether to include a new Fleetwood-Jourdain Recreation Center as part of the project added time. (The answer turned out to be “no.”)

Now, according to Brian Kronewetter, with architectural firm Cordogan Clark, groundbreaking is targeted for around Thanksgiving of this year, with opening in Fall 2025.

Raylin Owens-Fomond, who starts 6th grade this fall being bused to Bessie Rhodes magnet school, told the crowd that she can’t wait to have a school in her own neighborhood. (Once the 5th Ward building opens, the Rhodes facility will close, with the program moving to the new structure).

“To have a school in the 5th Ward will be great. How can you not be excited about that?” she asked.

Assuming no more delays, Raylin will be able to be an 8th grader at the new building in her home community.

It’s a reasonable guess that Devon Horton might want to be there as well, at least on day one.

Devon Horton addresses crowd at 5th Ward School site dedication.

But if he is, it will be as a visitor.

Horton is leaving District 65 to take the superintendent’s position in DeKalb County, Georgia, on July 1.

Horton said this dedication was to be his last public speech as District 65’s leader.

He recalled being hired three years ago. Board members said they expected him to make a 5th Ward school happen.

“Can you do it,” the board asked.

“I said yes,” Horton said. “With my fingers crossed.”

Time to uncross them.

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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  1. No doubt the school will be nothing more than a (to use Horton’s words) “symbol.”

    There was never any study done, nor data provided, nor even any argument made, that the school will fundamentally help the EDUCATION of students in the district.

    There is no reason to think that test scores, literacy, or college readiness will improve as a result of this symbol. Quite the contrary. The dodgy funding scheme being used to construct the school means that millions of dollars per year will have to be taken from the operating budget–money that is normally used to hire teachers, improve the existing facilities, and support students–and given to the financeers who bought the lease certificates being used to pay for the school.

    Meanwhile, there are tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance in all of the other District 65 buildings that will be neglected as a result of higher costs.

    Oh, and did I mention the District is building this while they are losing students?

    A symbol indeed.

  2. This school is hope and inspiration, Wallace Grovens, to many who live in that ward. It’s a symbol that they matter, and that they are not forgotten or ignored. It’s a symbol, sure, but one that may motivate and help so many kids who live there to feel like they belong, they matter, and they are valued. Those kids who have experienced having to be bussed to majority white schools with majority white teachers, will have a school of their own where most kids will probably look like them. You lose time and sleep being bussed like that. As someone raised and tuaght in a school where few people looked like me, I can tell you the damages that did. I struggled to have friends. I struggled in school because I spent so much time worrying about having friends and being excluded because I didn’t live close enough by and my mother wasn’t at home all day and couldn’t just drive me around to other neighborhoods to visit and make friendships more solid. So I was intensely lonely and felt like an outcast, because of that I had trouble focusing on school and learning. I didn’t want to do any group activities or group work, because everyone else had their friends except me. So… you keep your beef about the school, because I know I won’t change your mind. I do know that this could change a lot of lives and their educational path.

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