District 65 offices at the JEH Education Center.

The head of a citizens’ group advocating for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) school in Evanston’s 5th Ward says the panel’s plan would be less costly than an option being considered by the school system.

Henry Wilkins founded STEM School Evanston, a non-profit organization, several years ago, after learning about the 5th Ward’s past. The historically Black neighborhood has been without a school for decades, as desegregation policies sent 5th Ward children to schools in other parts of town.

“My heart broke,” Wilkins says, when he studied 5th Ward history after moving here from out of town.

While no decisions have been made, school board members of Evanston/Skokie District 65 say they want a 5th Ward school. But the finance model under consideration is different than the one suggested by Wilkins’ group.

The District is looking at something called “lease certificates,” which are similar to a mortgage in paying off a building over time.

The STEM group’s plan has District 65 leasing the structure from a non-profit.

Superintendent Devon Horton has applauded the STEM panel’s motivation, but questions letting a third party own a school.

“So many things can go wrong when we don’t own the building,” Horton told the school board at a recent meeting.

Wilkins says “we understand that concern, so let’s mitigate it.” The STEM group’s idea, he says, includes “asset sharing,” by putting a public library branch in the school, as well as generating revenue through such things as before and after school programming and recreation.

“Make it a hub,” he adds, “a community school model with wrap-around services.”

Both the STEM group and the district say the school could be built without a tax increase, but Wilkins says his panel’s plan would cost “far less” than the $37 million range the school board has discussed.

There are other issues as well. The argument in favor of a 5th Ward school has centered on equity, and the unfairness of having a mostly Black neighborhood not having a school for years.

However, 2020 Census data shows that the census tract where the formerly all-Black Foster school was located is now much more diverse, with just slightly more than half the residents identifying as Black. (One caveat … that response does not include those saying they are multiracial).

There is now a large Hispanic population in the area as well.

Wilkins says the population shift in Evanston has also included “gentrification” of previously lower and lower-middle class communities, something “which keeps me up at night,” he adds.

Wilkins says in order to “serve the folks we would like it to serve,” while at the same time not excluding others from a specialty program like STEM, students from what he describes as the “central core” of Evanston should have a percentage of slots prioritized, while leaving the rest open to the entire city.

STEM School Evanston has received grants from the Evanston Community Foundation and from Northwestern University to study items such as school location, funding and increasing Black input into education-related questions.

Wilkins says those studies will be completed within a few months and will be presented to the Board of Education. There will also be public meetings.

Wilkins says a STEM school is the “most attractive” option for a central core facility. “I believe a child exposed to STEM will have an increased interest in learning,” he adds.

However, Wilkins also says that if the studies and community input show that while a 5th Ward school is favored by residents, but a STEM option is not, then “so be it.”

Wilkins says the ultimate goal is to work with the neighborhood and the school board to develop whatever the majority wants.

“We all have the same end in mind,” he says, “improving education for children.”

“At the end of the day,” he adds, “this is what unites us.”

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