The angry parents are not pulling any punches.

In a letter to the District 65 Board of Education and top administrators, nearly 50 parents whose children attend the Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies accuse the district of going back on its word to preserve the Rhodes magnet program, by dropping plans to move its bilingual program to the new 5th Ward School.

“We write this letter to make the following clear,” the letter states. “[W]e want the Bessie Rhodes K-8 TWI program maintained in District 65 as it was promised to us.”

(TWI stands for two-way-immersion, a bilingual English/Spanish curriculum).

Moving Rhodes to the 5th Ward, the so-called “school within a school” model, was a key part of the 5th Ward School plan, approved by the board of education in March, 2022.

Read the full text of the parents’ letter.

But a few weeks ago, Interim Superintendent Angel Turner and Student Assignment Manager Sarita Smith wrote to the Rhodes community saying the “school within a school” plan was dead.

There were references to “building constraints,” but parents who attended a Rhodes meeting with District 65 officials on Sept. 21 tell Evanston Now there were no specifics discussed on whatever those constraints might be.

Plus, besides dropping Rhodes from the 5th Ward School, District 65 is also considering another huge change from the original plan — making the new school K-5 instead of K-8. (Rhodes is K-8).

One of the parents who was at the Sept. 21 meeting and signed the letter is Brigitte Frett Utter.

Utter, the mom of a Rhodes 2nd grader, tells Evanston Now that she is “concerned that [D65 officials] are not putting our children’s education first. Chaos has been created.”

Another 2nd grade parent, Ryan Lezcano, was also at the September session, and signed the letter to the district.

He tells Evanston Now, “I left there with a lot more questions than answers. They didn’t even know if the 5th Ward school will be K-5 or K-8. What school are you building?”

“We would think,” Lezcano says, “that after more than a year-and-a-half they should know the basic question of K-5 or K-8.”

The parents’ letter points out that bids for part of the 5th Ward site clearing and foundation work will be opened soon, but notes “what exactly are the … [bid] drawings based on? Are the intentions to build a K-8 or K-5 school? Which students will the school serve? Many critical questions remain unanswered.”

The letter stresses that the Rhodes parents are not opposed to the 5th Ward School.

Quite the opposite.

The parents’ letter says they simply support Rhodes and want it preserved as an entire school entity, in the 5th Ward school or else by keeping the existing Rhodes building open.

“We must not allow Bessie Rhodes and the K-8 TWI model to be collateral damage in the redistricting process,” the letter adds.

The 5th Ward School, which is supposed to open in the fall of 2025, is part of an overall redrawing of school attendance boundaries.

The original plan, which moved Rhodes and its 260 students to the 5th Ward, also called for sale of what would then become the former Rhodes building.

The parents’ letter also raises concerns about the fate of Rhodes’ teachers.

“Our teachers and staff were promised publicly and through your votes,” the letter tells the school board, “that their jobs were secure and would continue at the 5th Ward school. At the Sept. 21 meeting, this promise seems to be disintegrating.”

The TWI component is also important to the parents. Currently, TWI ends in 5th grade. The district planned to add TWI to Rhodes’ grades 6-8, but, of course, that can’t happen at Rhodes if there is no Rhodes.

Utter says if the “school within a school” concept is indeed dead, Rhodes parents are determined to save Bessie Rhodes school somehow.

“We want our school to be preserved. We are open to different ways to do it, or to keep it as is.”

The letter says that while “the District claims enrollment is driving the decision to close Bessie Rhodes,” the system’s own data shows that Rhodes is one of a handful of D65 schools where enrollment has not consistently decreased in the past five years, and is even projected to grow.

The parents also say that fixing up the Rhodes building would actually cost less than repairs for some of the district’s other schools.

Wrapping up their letter, the parents insist that the school board must keep its promise to keep the Rhodes program, and “any deviation from these plans must be transparently discussed in public forums and then openly voted on in the public record by the School Board.”

And what of the children who attend Rhodes?

Utter says her second grader, Max, is “definitely aware that something is going on. He’s aware of talk of closing the school.”

But if Max were able to navigate through the District 65 website, he’d discover that the district is not exactly keeping up with its own reality.

On one of the pages about the 5th Ward School, the site still says that school will be for children in the local attendance zone “and will also serve as the new home of Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies.”

Except, apparently, it won’t.

Update 7 p.m. 10/5/23: Another parent who signed the letter tells Evanston Now that “there are Bessie Rhodes families who are leaving,” and “the teachers don’t know what their future looks like.”

Mike Kendrick and his wife have a kindergartener and 2nd grader at the school.

Kendrick is a school administrator, but not in District 65.

As an administrator, Kendrick says he knows plans can change, but changes, and the reasons for them, should be properly explained

However, Kendrick says that the communication from D65 to Rhodes families and staff “has not been clear. It doesn’t feel like there’s been much transparency.”

“We were promised a school within a school,” he says, and his family were “committed” to the 5th Ward building with Rhodes included.

But with the “school within a school” now off the table, Kendrick says those with direct stakes in Bessie Rhodes- the parents, the staff, and, of course, the students, “have no idea what’s going to happen.”

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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