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Brick and Mortar

One morning you wake up, look out of your window, and discover that your world has changed. You're told "our world is flat" and that we are all connected by a "global economy." You're told that we live in a "digital age;" in an age "fueled by technology and shaped by the speed of innovation." You're told we live at a time when anything is possible. By anyone. But when you look around your community, you don’t see any of that. What you see are fewer businesses, fewer shops and more homes that are abandoned or in need of repair. The local school where you learned how to read, write and forged your earliest friendships is gone. The local hospital where you were born is gone. The local drug store where you bought ice cream, Dr. Pepper and penny candy as a child is gone. Jobs are scarce. The population is becoming older and grayer. Fewer and fewer young people seem to be remaining in the community. Those who do remain seem disconnected, discouraged or detached. Many seem angry. Many seem lost. The most important elements of the community that you knew and loved, a neighborhood school, family-owned businesses, trusted, longtime neighbors and friends, a sense of place, belonging and community pride, seem to be eroding away before your eyes. Time has not been particularly kind. You find yourself paying more taxes. But you lock your door at night. You begin to wonder if the community you knew will survive. And if it does survive, you wonder— What will survive? You love this place. You were raised here.

Your children were raised here. This is your home. But you begin to think about something that was once unthinkable. You begin to think about leaving. ********** Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Because this is the plight facing a number of communities, both urban and rural, across our great nation. This is the plight facing the community where my grandmother and my father grew up. The community where my brother and I once played as boys. The community that my uncle and many of my cousins still call home. This is the plight facing the 5th Ward of Evanston. ********** Right now... The 5th Ward is home to the City of Evanston’s largest African-American population. The 5th Ward is also the only community in the City of Evanston that does not have its own elementary school. Every other child in every other community in the City of Evanston can attend a neighborhood school of their choice. But not the children of the 5th Ward. Right now... Over 600 children are being bused out of the 5th Ward in order to attend elementary school. They must stand on darkened street corners, shivering and cold during the dog days of winter, in order to be bused away from their families, away from their friends, away from their community. So right now... The question we should all ask is why?

The answer you will most often hear is "diversity." "Busing is necessary for diversity." Children of the 5th Ward historically had to be bused out of the 5th Ward, and must continue to be bused out of the 5th Ward, in order to desegregate other area schools. And yes... There was a time when this might have been true. A time when children of color were forbidden from living in certain neighborhoods. A time when when little black boys and little black girls had to march down the streets of the City of Evanston with banners held high urging the good people to “desegregate now.” But times have changed. The needs of our communities have changed. The needs of our children have changed. Because our world... Has changed. Think for a moment of what it says to the children of the 5th Ward right now, and to the community as a whole right now, when the words “you have to go to school” mean “you have to go somewhere else.” What does this do to the sense of belonging, the sense of self, so critical to the continued survival of any community? It shatters it. It says, we are less than you. It says, we are not enough. The problem? You never see these psychological wounds. You only see the damage left in their wake. **********

The 5th Ward, like so many communities across our great nation, is a community at a crossroads. It is a community rich in tradition and history. It is also a community struggling against violence, unemployment, underemployment and deteriorating institutions; a community where a valued way of life hangs in the balance. Too often, “solutions” or efforts to "fix the problem" center around economic revitalization or the creation of jobs. Economic revitalization is certainly important. But to view the issues faced by communities like the 5th Ward solely in economic terms grossly underestimates other equally-important facets of community well-being. These include the value of place, the quality of environment, one's history as a member of a community, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of belonging and affiliation among caring friends, neighbors, and relatives. So here's the critical query... Could it be that this psychological sense of community provides the foundation upon which successful community development efforts should be built; not the other way around? ********** A neighborhood school is constructed of brick and mortar. Most neighborhood schools are equipped simply and functionally, some almost sparingly, with chalkboards and shelves, desks and chairs, windows and lights. The paint may be cracked and faded. The structure may be decades old. But it is the neighborhood school—as much if not more than any other public institution—that is the heart and soul of a community. Can there be any doubt that the strength of a community is inextricably linked to the success of its schools? That families move to and choose to remain in a particular neighborhood because of the school located in that area? That a good school is considered an essential part of any thriving community? Yes—a neighborhood school is constructed merely of brick and mortar. But it is so much more. It is here, in our neighborhood schools, where we come together, grow together, forge our collective constitution, shape our civic and social values and, most importantly, where an aggregation of people otherwise linked only by geography truly become a community. **********

There was once a neighborhood school in the 5th Ward of Evanston. Foster School. It was the school my grandmother attended. It was the school my father attended. It was closed in 1979. 30 years without a school in the 5th Ward is long enough. The City of Evanston is currently grappling with the issue of school overcrowding and how best to address this issue. The District 65 School Board recently approved a $13 million bond issue which included $8.2 million specially earmarked for additions at the schools where overcrowding is most severe. We think the present need certainly justifies the expansion of existing facilities. But the school board is also forming an 11-person committee to examine the merits of building a 5th Ward school. The job of this committee, at least at this early stage, is to conduct a feasibility study and make a recommendation to the full board. Pending the outcome of this recommendation, the question of building a school in the 5th Ward might be put to public referendum as early as March of 2012. The District 65 School Board should be commended for taking this important first step. The issues associated with building a new school are varied and complex. Information, public input and community feedback are key. So I intend to do my part. I intend to take the time between now and whenever this matter is put to referendum—the next year and a half if need be—to make an open, public and Socratic case for a 5th Ward School. A disclaimer is necessary. My work is purely voluntary and completely independent of the District 65 school board. I am speaking merely as a concerned citizen. But this is a cause that I deeply believe to be just. How will I make my case? I will use my website and multimedia tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogger to inform, engage and encourage open discussion and debate. Everything will be done openly; I intend to make a case for the good people of the City of Evanston by taking my case directly to the people of the City of Evanston. Because ultimately, the choice is theirs. Without public support, there will never be a school in the 5th Ward. But I am confident. The City of Evanston is a city that has consistently risen to meet the needs of all of its residents. This is a city of visionaries, leaders, educators and critical thinkers. This is a city that has a long history of fighting for what is fair and equitable. The people of the City of Evanston, simply put, know how to do the right thing. Martin Luther King once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”

This is my first step. But not alone. You can support this effort by visiting or by following us on Facebook or Twitter. I need each and every one of you, whether you live in the 5th Ward or not, to step up, speak out and to join this cause. Because every child in every community deserves the right to attend a neighborhood school of his or her choice. Right now, every child in every neighborhood in the City of Evanston enjoys that right. Every child—except the children of the 5th Ward. Thank you, one and all, for your consideration and support.

Attribution: Much of this blog was inspired by on based on "Rural Distress and Survival: The School and the Importance of "Community" by Bruce A. Miller. Though Mr. Miller's work focuses on rural communities, I believe many of the principles contained in his excellent essay are equally applicable to urban school districts as well.

A School for the 5th Ward a case for a community

Brick and Mortar  
Brick and Mortar  

a mike summers blog