Evanston/Skokie District 65 board president gives emotional response to Bessie Rhodes families

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board President Sergio Hernandez spoke directly to parents at the second public hearing on the possible closure of the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, the district’s only fully bilingual school.

This meeting, which saw a smaller crowd than the last one, was the second of three public hearings in which families continued to urge D65’s Board of Education to reconsider closing Bessie Rhodes, a kindergarten through eighth-grade bilingual and diverse school, after the 2025-2026 school year. The district is facing a $7 million budget deficit on top of its ongoing plans to open a 5th Ward school after construction finishes in summer 2026.

Hernandez said he wishes he could “have it all” but to reach the board’s goal of widespread, equitable access for all students, some sacrifices have to be made.

“We want a level playing field at a systems level. That’s what we’re striving for,” said Hernandez, the board’s first Latino president. “I’m sorry this is happening. It hurts my heart too because it is hurting my community. I don’t feel good about it at all.”

The district announced the possible closure earlier this year with Superintendent Angel Turner saying the budget just isn’t capable of managing its 19 schools across Evanston and Skokie.

Hernandez told attendees he struggled with his Latino identity as a child, which pushed him to become a bilingual educator.

Stephanie Mendoza, the Evanston city clerk, spoke about the struggles her children have faced as Latino students in D65’s system. Two of her children went through the Two Way Immersion, or TWI, program at Washington Elementary School where she said they became “the Spanish kids” and she worries for her young daughter who is just beginning her education.

“You’re taking a community from children who are just normal kids in a diverse environment learning language together,” Stephanie Mendoza said. “You’re telling them that they have to go to schools where they’re going to become the Spanish kids. How is that ok? You created this school for a reason.”

She told the board they are rescinding the promise made to families that students wouldn’t have to endure the same issues her children did and will continue the cycle of harm by placing them into other schools.

Bessie Rhodes mother Beatrice Cabrera echoed these concerns, saying Bessie Rhodes’ families don’t want their children to end up at Haven Middle School because of reports of racial tension. The school became the center of controversy in May 2022 when three nooses were found hanging in a tree on the property. Black families called out the racially motivated issues at the school, saying their children don’t feel safe in D65.

Brandy Grays told the board Bessie Rhodes became a saving grace for her after growing concerns about racial tension in other D65 schools.

“I want to plead as a Black woman that this program is very necessary,” Grays said. “It’s not ‘nice to have,’ it’s necessary.”

Other opponents argued closing the school to expand dual language will negatively impact Spanish-speaking families the most by removing their access to Spanish-speaking staff they can speak with directly about their children. Parent Chris Denardo said dual language staff members across the district will end up taking on that role and burning out, possibly prompting them to leave the district.

Concerns about getting enough students to sign up for the district-wide program were also discussed. The district plans to roll out a district-wide dual language program within the coming few years but former Board Member Rebecca Mendoza expressed doubts that enough students will join the program.

Bessie Rhodes parent Michelle Neuendorf also said the change will more directly impact Spanish-speaking students who will be forced to take on the burden of diversifying other schools in the district, a wrong the district is attempting to right with the 5th Ward school.

“This hurts. I wish I could have it all. I wish we could keep the K through eight model self-contained,” Hernandez said. “But what we’re looking for is moving beyond one building to ensure that every student … whatever race they are … has the same access to the resources they need because that hasn’t been the case.”

Neuendorf yelled “You can’t” as she left the meeting during Hernandez’ speech.

A final public hearing on the issue is scheduled for May 20 with the final decision coming before the board at its final meting of the year on June 10.