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Enrollment is down. Some parents have doubts about the programs. And a consultant says “we really need to think differently about the roles and outcomes of magnet schools.”

Serious issues were raised Saturday morning in an Evanston/Skokie School District 65 webinar about the district’s two magnet buildings, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School and the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies.

Magnet schools offer specialized programs that are supposed to attract students from all over the city.

Evanston’s first magnet school was created in 1967, as part of the school desegregation plan, at what had been the predominantly-Black Foster School.

The Foster building was later closed and its magnet program was moved to what had been Skiles Junior High School.

But now, as the district looks into redrawing attendance lines and building a new 5th Ward neighborhood school, consultant Gilo Kwesi Logan asked “are magnet schools still desirable for Evanston?”

He wasn’t saying no, but was at least raising the question, wanting parents to answer.

Logan stated that both magnet programs are operating at less than 60% of building capacity. He also said that many students who do attend King or Rhodes are already from the 5th Ward.

Webinar viewers posted comments via a “Thought Exchange.” One such remark suggested that some students attend King because it is almost a “neighborhood school” near where they live, not necessarily because of the magnet option.

20% of slots at each of the magnet buildings are reserved for children who live nearby.

“Walkable schools” is one of the District’s stated priorities in its ongoing re-evaluation of school boundary lines and the future of specific buildings.

Another comment said parents from other parts of town “prefer neighborhood schools, and the magnet curricula are not enough to attract kids.”

And another wondered if declining magnet enrollment is simply part of the district losing students overall. At 6,789 children, District 65 is down more than 1,200 youngsters since 2018-19.

There were positive comments about the magnet programs as well, one saying they “created opportunities for bringing students with common interests together to foster community.”

And another said her child had “the best possible experience at Bessie Rhodes.”

“Broadening the scope of magnet programs” is one of the district’s stated goals for the student re-assignment process.

How that will happen is still up in the air. But we may know soon. The overall district redesign proposal from the Student Assignment Planning committee should go to school board in March.

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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2 Comments

  1. As a 5th Ward parent of a Bessie Rhodes student and a teacher and an educational researcher working on a doctorate in curriculum studies, I have to say that the TWI magnet program at Bessie Rhodes is doing vital work in the community and for my family. Furthermore, I am deeply bothered by much of the commentary I have heard expressed which indicates that the higher proportion of 5th Ward students in the Magnet program is seen as a problem and fundamentally counterintuitive to the creation of a 5th Ward school. Much of it suggests that somehow students from the 5th Ward being a significant portion of the magnet programs makes those programs ‘less desirable’ while simultaneously suggesting that the current magnet programs would become superfluous if the 5th Ward had a neighborhood school of it’s own.
    I’ve also noted dismissive comments about the prospect of making a 5th Ward school the home of a STEM magnet program as a ‘non-starter’ because ‘no one (outside the 5th) would send their kids there’… And/or ‘a school in the 5th would adversely impact diversity elsewhere in the district’.
    The provision of magnet programs and a neighborhood school in the 5th are not mutually exclusive. The families of the 5th Ward and the educators who have been doing far more than we have right to ask to make the magnet programs so vital to the students who attend them are not The other here. The problem is the people who seem to be affronted by the suggestion that 5th Ward families ‘deserve’ to be in magnet programs or ‘deserve’ to have a school in their Ward, much less have access to both.
    Support the kids and teachers, and stop tolerating the dog-whistles.

    1. I’ve wondered if the District has thought about relocating Bessie Rhodes to the Fifth Ward and expanding it to four classes to a grade, combining the TWI and STEM concepts (or having two classrooms per grade of each). Given declining enrollment the District does not need to add a school, and Sk-Evanston does not really need two schools right around the corner from one another. Seems like it would be a win-win.

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