Empowering Youth with the Tools to Become Agents of Change!

Beyond the Referendum, Part II


Let the real work begin.  With the defeat of the D65 bond Referendum, there is much to learn, and from that, much to do.


What we learned is that the concept of a new school in the Central Core is a very divisive issue, yet one that resulted in a modest turnout during a primary election. Roughly 14,000 voters cast ballots, with nearly 1400 more voting against than for.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that the split can be easily explained.  Speaking with key D65 administrators, Board Members, teachers, parents, homeowners, social organization directors and folks from the various advocacy groups (both for and against the new school), I learned that this Referendum struck many different nerves, including (in no particular order):


1.     Bussing

2.     Segregation

3.     Social Justice

4.     Race

5.     Poverty

6.     Community Engagement

7.     Community Pride

8.     Fiscal Responsibility

9.     Property Taxes

10. Academic Performance

11. Facility Improvement (and STEM)

12. Enrollment, class size

13. Board Motive in Combining Referendum Issues


That’s a large number of very touchy issues all wrapped-up into a single vote.  Some will say that too much or too little emphasis was placed on certain of these issues, though I will leave for another day the weight that need be given to each as well as the availability and credibility of the information that was disseminated regarding each.  For now, I will continue with the assumption that these issues are ALL important, with most of the social issues having been the core of the cry for a new school from within the 5th Ward.  Embedded in this assumption is that the people who voted “no” are not bad people who wanted to deny 5th Ward residents a quality education and a community school, but rather who did so because the Referendum lacked vision and fiscal responsibility, both of which may have worked against being a benefit to anyone, including the 5th Ward.


So with that assumption, let’s now focus on the opportunity before us.  We need to remind ourselves that the single most important issue here is EDUCATION, though clearly education is so prominent in our lives that it embodies each of the issues identified above.  So let’s start the discussion with “education reform” and go from there.


While the District has made some modest gains in overall academic performance and the attempts to close the achievement gap, many folks feel that we should be doing better.  Varying reports are out saying that our students are not ready for ETHS and then not ready for College.  Standardized testing is being attacked as inadequate.  Federal programs are being re-written.  And the global economic and social landscape is dramatically different than it was when I was going through my public education.  How will the District keep up with the demands for a 21st Century Education working off of a traditional teaching model and in extremely tired facilities (though some recent improvements at various Lower El schools have been quite nice)?


The answer is that we need to take a giant leap forward, for ALL students, both within the 5th Ward and throughout the rest of the District.  We need to advance our academic performance while being more focused on everything from nutrition and the environment to social justice.  We need to see past the end of block and recognize that our education is about world issues and not merely traditional academics.  We need to address the needs and concerns of all citizens, promoting community engagement in the education process and in turn providing for safe, functional neighborhoods that work together for the better of all.  We need to allow for racial identification yet find ways to unify ourselves toward a common purpose, namely, to make Evanston a vibrant community that empowers all of its youth with tools for today and the future.  We need to unleash our incredible teachers and principals and empower them with the tools and freedom to take classroom learning to new heights.  And we need to do this in fiscally responsible manner as opposed to continuing to spend $100MM annually on just above average results with continued divisions along socio-economic and racial lines.


What I am proposing is not new.  There are a rising number of public schools throughout the US and here in the Chicago area that have achieved great results with the development of facilities, curriculum and programming built on models of academic excellence, social justice and community engagement, whether in predominately low-income or predominately minority communities.  There are public schools that exist which are focused on the person and the neighborhood residents as much as they are focused on the test score.  There are public schools that create independent, confident, problem-solving youth who are empowered to be productive citizens and even agents of change and who will be more than adequately prepared for High School and College.   There are public schools that are designed for maximum sustainability and environmental stewardship, some being “zero net,” generating as much energy as they use.  What’s more, many of these public schools are often built without a single, additional taxpayer dollar.


Regardless of the need for additional classroom space, regardless of the need to improve the Middle Schools, regardless of how or why the Board chose the path that it did, most of the issues identified above that seemed to split the voters can be embraced and solved with a focus on meaningful education reform that will be a social and economic centerpiece for the rest of the District and our City. 


There is clearly a way to bring this type of reform to Evanston, in a way that will address each of the issues above, from classroom size to classroom amenities, from social imbalance to integration, from fiscal responsibility to academic performance.  This is truly why we need a new school, above all else.  This is what we need for the 5th Ward.  This is what we need for D65 and the existing schools.  This is what we need in order to prepare our children for the World in which we now live.  The opportunity is before us to achieve something truly magnificent, beyond just a shiny new box, that will realize more success than ever could have been imagined by the new school proponents going into the Referendum. 


The first step is easy.  Gather a truly representative group of reformers, administrators and citizens from all income and racial groups and start with the premise that a new school is absolutely needed, not so much for space, but to dramatically improve our education, empower our youth and create a more vibrant City that attracts business and residents based in large part on the success of the public school system.  This panel will then write a proposal that will be presented to the D65 Board for approval, perhaps as part of an RFP, requiring no referendum as it will require no taxpayer money to build (though I am certainly not adverse to a referendum to fund the improvements to the Middle Schools if needed in the short term).   This school will then be built in the 5th Ward and will address far more than the immediate needs presented by the advocates in favor of this past Referendum...and I challenge us to get this done by the end of the 2012 calendar year! 


Let’s make this happen.  Let’s demand that this happen.


It’s time to get busy.



Neal H. Levin

Washington Elementary Parent x3