Parents fight Evanston/Skokie District 65’s proposal to close Bessie Rhodes school

Families of the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies filled the room at Monday’s Evanston/Skokie School District 65 meeting, the first of several public hearings to discuss the possible closing of the district’s only full bilingual school.

With the district facing a $7 million budget deficit, the district reported permanent cuts of at least $5 million will be required for the upcoming school year. One cost-cutting measure includes possibly closing Bessie Rhodes, a kindergarten through eighth-grade magnet school at 3701 Davis St., Skokie, that teaches students in a bilingual environment through its Two-Way Immersion program, following the 2025-2026 school year.

The program, also known as TWI, sees kindergarten through eighth-grade classes of English and Spanish speakers across te district being taught in both languages in hopes students become fluent in both.

It began in 2000 and has further been expanded in the years since and is currently available to all Spanish-speaking English Language Learners, and to English proficient students through a selective enrollment lottery at the following schools: Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, Dawes, Dewey, Oakton, Washington, and Willard, according to a district spokesperson.

The program expanded in the 2018-2019 school year at Bessie Rhodes to include all students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade and starting next year, the school will become the first site of the district’s Dual Language program, serving sixth to eighth grade students.

“It breaks my heart, and nothing about this is easy or feels good,” District 65 Superintendent Angel Turner said at the April 22 public hearing.

The district announced earlier this year it would begin considering closing the school, with Turner arguing the district can’t fund its 19 schools while also planning for the opening of a new 5th Ward school in 2026. The new school is designed to address some of the historic wrongs perpetuated against Black Evanston residents who saw their neighborhood schools, like Foster School in the 5th Ward, closed and were then bused to other Evanston schools during desegregation.

Turner said the district knew it would likely be closing Bessie Rhodes as far back as 2022 when the district approved the student assignment planning program, designed to rethink school attendance boundaries and student programming options and locations on top of bringing in the 5th Ward school. At that point, plans placed Bessie Rhodes students at the 5th Ward school for a “school within a school” model. When the new school had to be downsized, it threw a wrench in these plans.

Turner argued the 5th Ward school will end up serving a large chunk of Bessie Rhodes students, with 37% of students there residing in that ward, and with declining enrollment across the district for several years and the costs of needed improvements to Bessie Rhodes, the decision made sense.

“We recognize that this shift has a significant impact on the Bessie Rhodes community and we know this is not what currently enrolled families signed up for,” she said. “Our school board and administration are faced with difficult decisions … I want to assure you that we do care and we take our responsibility seriously to have a strong student-centered transition plan in place should the decision be made to close Bessie Rhodes.”

District 65 Board of Education President Sergio Hernandez said the district has always had plans to expand dual language programming and is looking forward to seeing other schools get the chance to participate.

“It’s a dream come true that we are expanding Two-Way Immersion across the school district,” Hernandez said. “Bessie Rhodes, for me, is like a step one in this whole process and it will continue … and the ultimate goal (is) to have walkable schools and programs that are high quality and are brought to students, versus taking the students to the program.”

Others argue the district chose Bessie Rhodes because of its largely low income and minority population, with speakers citing over 90% of the 275 students at the school are of a minority group and nearly two thirds of students are from low income families.

“Why us? Why start closing schools with the most diverse one in the district?” parent Michele Neuendorf said to applause. “I urge you to have the hard conversations now and don’t just close the school with the fewest wealthy white parents.”

Parent Aide Acosta echoed Neuendorf’s sentiments, saying closing Bessie Rhodes feels like a targeted attack against the Latino community.

“Your individual decisions are an injustice to my son, my brown son,” Acosta said. “Without sound justification or a sound strategy, you are harming Black and brown children in our school.”

She left the microphone saying, “Le viva Bessie Rhodes!”

Former District 65 Board of Education member Rebeca Mendoza closed out public comment, saying if Bessie Rhodes is shuttered, it will be another historic harm perpetuated by District 65.

“It’s going to be really painful to revisit this time in Evanston history when we look back,” she said. “We don’t feel seen and we don’t feel heard and I hope that starts to change.”

If the school were to close, students would get the opportunity to transfer to dual language programs in other D65 schools or take a Spanish Language Arts course at the student’s neighborhood school.

With less than 30 days remaining of the school year, two more hearings are scheduled for May 6 and May 20 with a final decision by the school board scheduled for the final regular meeting of the 2024-2025 school year on June 10.