Last month Evanston’s public grade schools released their 1988-89 enrollment figures and test scores, and folks there still don’t know how to react. On the one hand, some white residents fret over “white flight,” since black enrollment in several grade schools has climbed above 50 percent. On the other hand, many officials and parents worry because white students performed twice as well as blacks on standardized national tests–perpetuating a gap that has existed for as long as such test-score records have been kept.

Yet a closer examination of the figures tells a different, more encouraging story. The middle-class students of Evanston–both black and white–score very high. As for the lower-income students–mostly black–they score higher than their counterparts in Chicago and other suburbs. Evanston is proving that a public-school system can do a good job of educating rich and poor, honors and underachieving students, even in the same classroom. Theirs is a model for other school systems, particularly Chicago’s.

“We provide for all kids,” says Joseph Pollack, school superintendent for Evanston’s grade schools. “If they need remedial help, they’ve got it. If they’re on an advanced level, they’re taken care of, too.”

The secret, most school officials say, is smaller classes–none larger than 24 students. This makes it easier for teachers to group children by ability.

“We do some regrouping or ability teaching,” says Clara Pate, principal of Oakton School, a grade school just a few blocks from the Chicago border whose black enrollment last year reached 74 percent. “We try to do individual instruction. It means more preparation on the teacher’s part. But we can have kids doing algebra next to a kid doing one plus one.”

Few other school systems in the area can make that claim. Chicago’s parochial schools reserve the right to kick problem students out, so grouping kids by ability may not be as big an issue. And the archdiocese doesn’t publicize test scores, so it’s hard to tell how well parochial students are doing as a group. Most suburban school districts have very few low-income students, because few poor families can afford to live in most suburbs, so differences in achievement are not so great.

Not so in Evanston. Roughly a quarter of its grade-school population comes from families living on incomes below the poverty line, and in some schools–like Oakton–that number’s higher than 40 percent.

Evanston has a strange mix of housing, with lower-rent apartment buildings on the same blocks as homes selling for as much as $500,000. In its diversity Evanston is akin to Rogers Park, Edgewater, and other north-side Chicago neighborhoods.

The difference is that most parents in the big houses in Evanston send their children to the local public schools. And their kids excel. Evanston’s nonblack third-graders (a category consisting mainly of whites, with a small percentage of Hispanics and Asians) score in the 79th percentile for reading and the 89th for math.

Even in schools with a majority of blacks, Evanston’s white students score high, thus destroying the myth that white students will suffer if they share the same school or classroom with blacks. Nonblack third-graders at Oakton, for example, score in the 83rd percentile for reading and 88th for math.

Oakton’s black third-graders, by contrast, score in the 41st percentile for reading and 43rd for math. (Citywide, Evanston’s black third-graders are in the 41st percentile for reading and 45th for math.) The disparity is most alarming at the Martin Luther King Jr. Lab School, which is 54 percent white and 43 percent black: white third-graders score in the 91st percentile for math, black third-graders in the 21st.

School officials are quick to note that low-income black students in Evanston score higher than low-income blacks from other school districts. (Students from public schools in poor black Chicago neighborhoods rarely score above the tenth percentile.) Nevertheless, the gap between white and black students in Evanston is troubling, and school officials can offer only disparities in income as an explanation.

“The gap comes down to equity,” says Pate. “If my kid and your kid are middle-class, they’ll probably both do well–race doesn’t matter. But all kids don’t start the race at the same line. Some start school as readers, others don’t. The Oakton school didn’t make that gap; society made that gap. But we have to deal with it–and we deal with it in the same classroom.”

The Evanston grade-school district first publicized the differences between test scores by race four years ago, at the insistence of white and black parents. “Most people knew the gap was there,” says Pollack. “The board felt that by not releasing these numbers it would appear as though we were covering something up.”

That was an appearance to be avoided for good reason. Evanston’s leaders have not always promoted integration in their neighborhoods or schools. For years, most blacks lived in a segregated west-side community; their children attended an overcrowded grade school.

That began to change in 1966, when Evanston voluntarily implemented a citywide desegregation busing program. Over the years, as the number of blacks grew to roughly 20 percent of the suburb’s population, black residents gradually moved into neighborhoods other than the west side. Now south Evanston–once overwhelmingly white–is almost 50 percent black.

There have been whispers since the 60s that whites would flee any school whose black population exceeded 40 or 45 percent. Three of Evanston’s eleven grade schools now have a black majority; one other has a plurality of black students. The racial breakdown throughout Evanston’s grade schools is 48 percent white, 45 percent black, and 7 percent Asian or Hispanic.

“Race should not be an issue,” says Joy Nachtrab, copresident of the Oakton PTA. “Some white parents say they don’t want their child to be a minority in the school. I say their kids are lucky. They’re learning how to get along with other kids, and they aren’t sacrificing their education at all.”

Indeed, there is no rational reason for white parents to yank their kids from Oakton. It’s a clean school, well run and orderly. The windows are unbroken. There are no graffiti, no gangs or problems with drugs. At recess, black and white kids play together. Besides, the number of whites at Oakton will undoubtedly rise in the next few years, as more and more couples with children move from Chicago–this area is among Evanston’s most affordable.

“To white parents who worry about putting their children in Oakton because the school is 74 percent black, I say, ‘Look at our test scores,'” says Terri Shepard, Nachtrab’s PTA copresident, whose son David is president of the student council at Oakton. “The teachers push kids at Oakton. They say, ‘Come on, we know you can learn.’ My daughter came out of kindergarten reading–it wasn’t just a social experience. As a black parent, I’m concerned about the gap in black-white performance, but no parent should worry about sending his child to Oakton.”

Whether the Oakton model–at least it’s keeping its middle-class kids, and its black students do relatively well–would work in Chicago is unclear. For one thing, parents in Chicago are even more hung up on race and ethnicity. Many city schools–and some in Evanston, for that matter–have separate associations for black or Hispanic parents. There’s only one PTA at Oakton, and it has one black and one white president.

Second, Chicago leaders have neither the money nor the will to reduce class size by hiring more teachers and building more schools. In Chicago, Mexican-American activists have been complaining for years about the overcrowding in schools (it’s often called “the Hispanic issue”). To stifle their complaints, the Board of Education no doubt will add new wings to a few schools in Little Village or Humboldt Park, meanwhile pretending that classrooms of 35 to 40 students in black and white north-side schools do not exist.

Finally, Evanston gets more from its teachers because teachers there are treated with respect. In Chicago, editorial writers and community activists seem to derive sadistic satisfaction from bashing teachers, who get few accolades or rewards for the efforts they do make.

Then there’s the issue of pay. Two years ago, Chicago’s public-school teachers had to strike for 19 days to win a chintzy 3 percent raise. And despite this year’s 5 percent pay hike, Chicago teachers’ income has declined over the past ten years when measured against the rising cost of living. Board of Education members and civic leaders pay lip service to the teachers’ important role, but the starting salary is still less than $20,000, and the highest-paid teachers make only around $40,000. No wonder many talented college students opt for careers in corporate law or business. The work may be grueling and unsatisfactory, but the pay comes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Evanston does a little better than Chicago on salaries. Teachers start at $23,242 and can earn as much as $52,200. In addition, teachers work in cleaner, newer, less crowded classrooms, where they are hounded by fewer administrators and restricted by fewer petty rules and regulations. Considering how miserably Chicago treats its public-school teachers, it’s a wonder anyone teaches there at all. “I talk to teachers who come here from Chicago,” says Pate. “They say it’s like heaven here.”

In return for the higher salaries they pay, Evanston’s parents expect more from teachers and principals.

“The circumstances of a child’s life are better here than they are in Chicago, even if the child is poor,” says Superintendent Pollack. “There are more models of success–both black and white. It’s a smaller district, so it’s more manageable. Most important, expectations are high. Our parents don’t allow schools to be poor achievers.”

And yet the goal of closing the black-white gap is a long way off.

“The key is parental involvement,” says Shepard. “You have to read to your kids, you have to take an interest in what they do. I don’t put all the blame on parents. Some work two jobs; they don’t have a lot of free time. And Evanston is not without prejudice. With so many kids doing well, it’s easy not to concentrate on those left behind.

“I’m hopeful. I was at a meeting where a lady said, ‘Evanston is the only community where they are confident that they can solve every ailment.’ I hope she’s right, because I want to see this gap closed. I want to see everybody at Oakton scoring in that 80 percent range.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.