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The costs of integration: for two generations, Evanston has worked to ensure racial diversity in its elementary schools. But some parents are starting to wonder whether black students have really benefited.

The before- and after-school routines worked smoothly last school year for north-west-side Evanston resident Karen Goetz and her daughter, Laura, a third-grader.

Laura awoke at 7 a.m., her mother said, and they left the house together at 8 a.m. for the two-and-a-half-block walk to Lincolnwood Elementary. They would arrive by the time the doors opened at 8:10 a.m., which gave Laura some time to unwind, and her mother time to greet other parents and teachers, check out Laura's artwork, and soak up the atmosphere-all before school started at 8:25 a.m.

"I enjoy that morning routine very much," Karen Goetz said. "Being there is a big part of feeling connected."

Things were a bit trickier for Sharon Mills and her daughter, fourth-grader Tekeyhia Boozer, who was assigned to Kingsley Elementary-about five blocks from their home on Evanston's west side. To walk to the school, they had to cross both a busy inter section and a bridge.

Mills would wake her daughter at 8 a.m. After Tekeyhia ate breakfast and got dressed, they walked three blocks to the nearest school bus stop so she could make the 10-minute ride to Kingsley.

While the bus was scheduled to pick up Tekeyhia around 9 a.m., it sometimes did not arrive at the school until its 9:15 a.m. start time, especially in the winter, Mills said. Her daughter and others on the bus were late to school those days, and even when they arrived on time, "They [didn't] get time to play," Mills said.

Things are better this school year. The bus picks up Tekeyhia at 8:20 a.m., 40 minutes before school starts. Still, the distance creates headaches when it comes to after-school activities and parent-teacher conferences. "It's hard trying to walk back and forth," she said.

Evanston-Skokie School District 65-which serves elementary-and middle-school students in Evanston and northeastern Skokie--adheres to a "60 percent guideline," which mandates that each school have no more than 60 percent of any one racial or ethnic group. But since most of Evanston's neighborhoods don't reflect that level of diversity, it's unlikely the school district could achieve integration without busing and custom-made attendance areas.

Many parents, including Goetz, appreciate integrated schools.

"If they ever draw the [attendance] lines where the kids go to the schools closest to them, I'm not sure there would be any black kids or Hispanic kids at Lincolnwood," said Goetz, who is white. "I purposely said, 'I'm not moving to Wilmette,' because that's how the school would look [there]."

But then, she added, "At what expense to the minority families, black and Hispanic, am I getting diversity for my white child? That's a soul-searching question that I've been asking myself."

Mills and other black parents from Evanston's west side, who have grown weary of the inconveniences of busing, ask themselves the same thing.

"As far as them busing kids from one area to another area, I think that is so stupid," said Mills, whose neighborhood is divided among the attendance areas of four different elementary schools. "All these kids [in the same community] shouldn't be separated like that."

Nearly 35 years after blacks fought for integration in Evanston to gain access to schools with more resources, many African Americans there now question whether integration best serves their children's interests. District figures show that black children are bused more often than whites, while the standardized test scores of blacks trail their white counterparts.

District figures for 2002 state achievement tests show that, for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, nine of every 10 whites met or exceeded standards in reading and math, compared with about five of every 10 African Americans. But the lowest test scores among black fifth-graders occurred in two elementary schools where black children are often bused.

Some black families and community activists are now asking the district to lessen the burden of busing as part of a larger discussion about improving the quality of education for black students. School board officials are listening to the concerns. This summer, district staff studied the connections among busing, race, geography and test scores. The board will receive the findings and discuss the district's busing patterns at its Oct. 7 meeting.

Since 1985, school attendance zones have been configured partly to help the district meet its "60 percent guideline." Although all schools are currently in compliance with the guideline, the district has not always followed it strictly, and some who see a link between busing and achievement would just as soon see it modified or discontinued.

The issues have simmered in Evanston for years. A June 1998 Chicago Reporter analysis, for instance, showed that black students accounted for 186 of the 218 students bused because they lived more than 1.5 miles from their schools.

The achievement gap between students of different racial and ethnic groups has been well-documented at Evanston Township High School. But parents say the problems need to be addressed much earlier.

"This is an issue that has been discussed in Evanston for a long, long time, and I think what you'll see happening now is some real efforts to translate the concerns into effective programs," said District 65 Superintendent of Schools Hardy Murphy, who is black and has earned the support of some black parents for his attention to the achievement gap.

Among the questions researched this summer was how the demographics of each elementary school would change if students were as signed to the schools closest to their homes. School Board President Mary Rita Luecke said District 65 wants to find out how many are already going to the closest schools.

Either way, as long as Evanston's west side lacks a school that students could easily walk to, said Luecke, who is white, "the reality is going to be ... more kids from those neighborhoods are going to be bused. I would prefer it not be that."

BUSING BURDEN

The Metra rail line along Green Bay Road provides a glimpse of the contrast between the north and west sides of Evanston.

At Central Street on Evanston's north side, there is a view of a bustling commercial strip complete with a post office, library branch and a Starbucks. Homes along the shady lanes beyond Central range from mansions to more modest bungalows and ranches. Evanston's 6th and 7th wards, which comprise most of the city's north side, are 92 percent and 84 percent white, respectively, according to the 2000 census.

About a mile south along Green Bay Road on the city's west side, the Metra trains barrel past a sleepier business district along Simpson Street that includes a hip-hop record store, a mom-and-pop grocery and a Walgreen's. While most homes are nicely kept, vacant lots and boarded-up buildings occasionally pockmark the residential blocks, which are also dotted with small factories and warehouses. This area is home to the city's only two majority black wards. The 2nd and 5th wards are 52 percent and 56 percent black, respectively, according to the census.

The north side wards each have two elementary schools. The 5th Ward has no school at all, while the 2nd Ward contains Dewey Elementary, which is located a few blocks from downtown Evanston and draws students from the east-central section of the city, and Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory, a magnet school that draws students from throughout the district.

It's hard to say how much the adults of the north and west sides of Evanston interact, but for two generations the school district's integration policy has ensured that the schoolchildren of these communities have the opportunity to mix.

The school district provides busing for children who live at least 1.5 miles from their attendance-area schools or who would have to cross a major street to reach school on foot. Busing is also provided for students who attend either one of the district's two magnet schools and for some who attend special programs, like bilingual education, which draw students districtwide.

Of the 4,396 students from kindergarten through 5th grade en rolled in the district's 12 elementary schools at the start of last school year, 41 percent were black, 41 percent were white, 11 percent were Latino, 4 percent were Asian and 3 percent were multiracial.

Blacks, however, were bused more often than whites during the previous school year, according to statistics published in the June 18 edition of the Evanston Round Table. Among the 2,181 students bused in the 2001-02 school year, 47 percent were black and 36 percent were white, according to the biweekly community newspaper, which obtained the data from the district last year.

But among the 1,116 students who were bused but were not in districtwide schools or programs, 57 percent were black and 37 percent were white.

District 65 officials said they were unable to provide more recent data to the Reporter because they were in the process of researching the information.

But the district did provide statistics that show busing was particularly heavy in the 5th Ward, where 80 percent of elementary school students were black in 2001-02.

A total of 269 children in the 5th Ward were bused that year, nearly half of all the ward's elementary school students. Of those who were bused to non-magnet schools, 91 percent were sent to the four elementary schools on Evanston's north side.

"We're just pieces over here that people [in other neighborhoods] take to fill their pie," said Gabrielle Logan, a 5th Ward resident whose two children are not yet school age.

Still, some black parents have accepted the inconveniences because they say it offers their kids a good education.

Cheryl Henry recalled being "a bit upset" when she learned her son was going to be bused two miles to Willard Elementary in the northwest corner of the city. But "it turned out that it was a good school," she said. Lacking a car, "it was hard for me getting up there for different programs. But it was worth it; he learned about other cultures."

Other parents aren't sure.

Carol Singleton, a west-side Evanston resident and former district bus driver who drove her daughter's bus to Willard last year, said the route took 15 to 25 minutes. "It was a nice school," she said. "But my thing is: They don't have no school in the community where we live."

ACHIEVEMENT GAP

Evanston's west side once had its own school. Foster Elementary, with its red brick exterior, sat across the street from athletic fields and a recreation center where sporting events and talent shows were held, said Bennett Johnson, former president of the Evanston North Shore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It was the social center of the community for the children," he said. "It was a separate but satisfactory world."

But black parents grew dissatisfied with the school's lack of resources and poor academic reputation. An activist organization led by school board candidate Frances Campbell Davis threatened to sue the district in 1967 over school segregation, and integration soon followed, Johnson said

"[Foster] was seen as a school that wasn't that good, and you had a number of tough kids over there. We used to call it the 'Red Brick Prison,'" said Hecky Powell, the school board's vice president and only black member. "A number of blacks wanted the school closed. They wanted kids going to other schools, not just for integration but for educational purposes."

Powell said his parents used an alternate address so that he could go to Dewey rather than Foster.

Integration was initially supported by local black leaders who viewed it as an opportunity for black children to attend schools with more resources. Some also believed integration could help bridge the racial divide.

The Rev. John Norwood of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, located just west of downtown Evanston, served on the District 65 school board for seven years in the 1970s. He said he was a "strong advocate" for integration at that time.

Many of the black students have lost ground academically since the district closed Foster in 1979, at a time of declining enrollment, "because they lost that personal touch of history," said Norwood, who is black. "We have had a failed effort for 25 years. There has to be a new, innovative way of attacking the problem."

One idea, proposed by activists and civic groups in 2001, was to reopen Foster to give parents a nearby option. The building that once housed Foster is now the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus center, which provides family support services including mentoring, teen pregnancy prevention and parenting classes.

After several discussions, the school board ended consideration of that proposal in March due to the district's already strapped budget. "The timing was awful," said Greg Klaiber, a school board member from 1999 through April of this year.

The board had cut $3.5 million in programs during the 200102 school year, and financial projections showed a $38 million deficit by 2008-09, he said.

Activists, however, have continued to advocate for the idea while exploring other options such as a charter school. In the interim, "we are seeking to organize groups working with parents to help them better assist their children," said 2nd Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a member of the Coalition for African-American Equity, a group of parents and activists that strongly backed the reopening of Foster.

Busing opponents believe students who walk to school have advantages: They can avoid waiting for buses in the cold and dark during the winter. They can hang out with friends after school, stay in the library to do homework and more often attend after-school programs. Their parents can attend PTA meetings and other school events more easily.

"If, in fact, we are going to get down to really closing the achievement gap, [the busing is] something that needs to be alleviated," said 5th Ward Alderman Joe Kent, who teaches 3rd grade at Washington Elementary School on Evanston's south side.

Combined results for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders on the 2002 Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) and Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) test show that 91 percent of whites met or exceeded standards in math, compared with 50 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Latinos. Nine of every 10 whites met or exceeded standards in reading, while fewer than five of every 10 blacks and four of every 10 Latinos did, according to the district's figures.

The district's research might provide answers, but some district officials aren't ready to link busing and achievement.

"Show me the data," said Klaiber, who is white. "We have many African American and low-income students who walk to school every day, whose achievement is not better than those who are being bused."

But, for students from the mostly black 5th Ward, there might be a link in at least two elementary schools on Evanston's north side, according to a Reporter analysis of 2002 Illinois School Report Card data for District 65 schools. The district's lowest scores among black fifth-graders that year were recorded at Kingsley and Willard schools, both of which could not meet the district's "60 percent guideline" without 5th Ward students.

At Kingsley and Willard, white students tested slightly higher in reading and math than the districtwide average for whites, but black students at those schools tested far below the districtwide average for blacks. About half of all black fifth-graders in the district met or exceeded goals in reading and math. But, at Kingsley and Willard, about a third do.

Without black students from the 5th Ward, Kingsley would be 70 percent white and Willard would be nearly 63 percent white, according to district figures.

Murphy was not surprised by the numbers. While the district wants to find if there any links between busing and achievement, he stressed that the primary goal is attacking the gap. "It's our hope and our ambition that these test scores ... are going to improve significantly in the long term. We're working with our teachers on it and we have board commitment for it."

The achievement gap was dramatically different at another north side school where 5th Ward students are often bused. Black fifth-graders performed about as well as their white classmates at Lincolnwood, where 81 percent of blacks and 85 percent of whites met or exceeded goals in reading, while 76 percent of blacks and 85 percent of whites did so in math. But whites at the school scored slightly lower than the districtwide average for whites in both reading and math.

"The conclusion that busing affects achievement is contradicted by the high performance of the African American students at Lincolnwood who come from essentially the same neighborhood and are also bused to school," said Luecke. She also noted that black students from the 5th Ward live relatively close to Kingsley and are bused primarily because they would have to cross McCormick Boulevard to reach the school on foot.

"The school system has served white families very well," said Susan Greene, a white parent whose daughter went to District 65 schools. "When you talk to black parents, they don't share that perspective. They feel integration has come at their expense, or their children's expense. And I think that's true."

WAKE-UP CALL

Regardless of busing's impact, members of the Coalition for African-American Equity have challenged the district to do whatever is necessary to close the achievement gap-even if it means changing the district's integration policy, which they otherwise have nothing against in principle.

"Integration is an objective that this society holds up as a good thing. And it ought to be," said Jean-Baptiste. But, he added, "we have passed on underachievement as if it's a community heirloom. We have been tolerant of it. We need to become intolerant," he said.

Activists see reopening Foster as an opportunity for the district to "focus on different models that can troubleshoot whatever the obstacles are to teaching and learning," Jean-Baptiste said.

Terri Shepard, a former school board member and one of the original members of the coalition, agrees. "There's a lot of people who feel we shouldn't entrust our kids to people who don't deliver. You look at the gap--they haven't delivered," she said. "We're all looking for a method to sound a wake-up call."

In response, Murphy said District 65 is not the only one with an achievement gap. "Everyone in the field of education wants to find the answers. That's what we come to work for," he said.

Luecke, the school board president, said the reasons why some students haven't achieved are complex. Poor children typically have fewer resources, and their parents are available less often because they work more, she said.

High expectations from teachers are the key, Jean-Baptiste said. "It's not who you sit next to, and it's not whether you have computers on the table, that determines whether you read or write," he said. "It's whether someone has those expectations for you."

Luecke sees that as a legitimate issue, but one that District 65 is working to address. "It would be dishonest to say that the district is completely free of discrimination in terms of holding some children to lower standards," she said. "But I don't think that's the main [problem]."

The school board will talk this fall about changing or removing the 60 percent guideline as one way to reduce the busing, and, possibly in turn, help the achievement picture. In particular, activists and black parents want closer school choices for westside children currently bused miles from home.

Murphy suspects that simply sending every child to the closest school would lead to overcrowding in some schools because the schools are not evenly distributed. He hopes to glean knowledge about that and other subjects from the district's research, and then "have reasonable discussions about some adjustments that can be made" to the busing picture, he said.

"Part of that package is to make parents of all backgrounds feel like they're embraced and made part of the school community," Murphy said. "The important thing for me is for us to alleviate some of the contention that has accompanied researching and debating the questions, so that we can really focus on student achievement and providing assistance to the teachers in the classrooms."

It's likely that no one in Evanston will feel satisfied until they see improved test scores--and for some, that means that busing to achieve integration may have to go.

"You're trying to create a diverse environment to fill people's wants, not their needs," said Gwen Rucker, a black parent whose son graduated from a district school. "There's a bigger problem here: There's a real need for African American children to succeed academically."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer who lives in Evanston.
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Author:Finkel, Ed
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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