District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and his wife, Christiane Horton, with their sons Trustin (left) and Devon Jr. (right) at a back-to-school event in fall 2021. Not pictured: Daughters Zoie and Cori Horton. (Photo by Heidi Randhava) Credit: Heidi Randhava

Devon Horton became the latest superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in June 2020, amid a global pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with historical racism. Horton was born and raised by a single mom on the South Side of Chicago with his three sisters, and he majored in elementary education at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi. He taught at Chicago Public Schools for several years before becoming an assistant principal in the district, and later he worked as the deputy superintendent in East St. Louis and the chief of schools in Louisville before coming to Evanston as the District 65 superintendent.

The RoundTable sat down with him last week to discuss his early experiences in Evanston, the challenges he has faced and his goals for the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

RoundTable: What influenced you to devote your career to education?

Devon Horton: In the summertime when I was in high school, I used to go back to my old school, and I would tutor other students in reading for a summer job. What really inspired me to go into education was one young man I was tutoring, and he was going through the dictionary trying to define some terms. The teacher allowed the tutor to help the students with that. As I was working with him, this young man could not identify a word in the dictionary. So I asked him to say his alphabet, and he skipped over the “M, N, O, P.” I didn’t know what to do, and the teacher told me he was in summer school. He was in eighth grade, and she said, “That’s not our problem. That’s his parents’ fault that he doesn’t know his alphabet.”

Right there, a light bulb went off in my head. I didn’t know much about teaching, but I knew that wasn’t right, and I decided to major in elementary education.

RT: What was it like to start leading a new district in the middle of a pandemic?

DH: I had a nice running start. I was actually offered the position in December 2019, so the board gave me the green light to come back, to work with the district, not for pay, but for free, for the first six months of the year. When COVID hit and we shut down, I was here doing one of my visits, garnering information from staff. I went back home and by the 13th of March, we shut down schools. My superintendent from JCPS [Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools] allowed me to still, of course, be engaged with JCPS, but I spent a great deal of my time preparing to actually come into this district.

I met with everyone. I would say if I had less than 100 meetings in a six-month period, I think I would be selling myself way short. If you name it, I met with them. So I had a really good picture of what I was walking into, and it gave me a lot of leverage when I came to start working in that COVID world.

I knew that while my main priority was to keep our students and staff safe, I had already started with my team on some of the things we needed to shift right away that were quick wins. I think that head start really helped me, and I was thankful that the board allowed me to spend that time when I technically wasn’t even an employee yet.

RT: How do the challenges of the current in-person year compare to conducting school totally online last year?

DH: The 2020-21 school year was not as challenging as this year as far as the actual work, because during the first year of this, there were so many unknowns about COVID that we played it safe on many fronts, so we didn’t open our doors for students until February of 2021. Up until February, if you didn’t feel comfortable, we allowed you to work at home. I gave that grace. I said, “Work from home, we’ll work with you.” But when we returned in February, you actually had to have a waiver in order to still remain working from home. That’s when things got a little choppy.

People were feeling supported when we gave them the option, but we had to tighten it up because our children had to get back to school. More information was coming out about COVID and its impact and how to mitigate it a lot safer, and we had a chance to test our mitigation efforts from February until May. Once we were done, the planning for year two was a lot easier because we had that trial run in the spring.

The actual implementation for this school year was way more challenging because now you’re dealing with not just the mitigation, but with people. We’re dealing with uncertainties. Fortunately for this community, we have a pretty high vaccination rate, and we don’t have many anti-maskers.

In the process, what I tried to get our team to understand is that there were some missteps – show me a district that didn’t make some missteps during COVID learning.

We had really good safety mitigation practices in place, but what we underestimated was the impact on our educators and how they were feeling, more than anything, just being uncomfortable back inside the classroom. We got some pushback from that, so I had to end up shifting the sails in October this year, just to make sure that our educators understand that we love them, we support them and we want them to be in a great place with their teaching.

RT: In 2021, schools really became a battleground over different ways of thinking and ideas for how to teach children. Did you see that manifest itself in Evanston?

DH: In July of 2020, we made the decision that if we were to open our doors in the fall of 2020, that we were going to prioritize special education, emerging and bilingual students, free and reduced lunch, and so on and so forth. I made a statement in a meeting, and I said that unfortunately, those students that are represented in those demographics, the majority of them are Black and Brown. Some people didn’t like that, and so I got some death threats. I wasn’t on the job for two months, and this was starting to happen already.

This past summer, though, we had a lawsuit about the work that we were doing, even prior to me coming, around equity, and when it went public, someone busted out the back window of my Jeep when it was parked outside of the office.

I would say that the decision-making around COVID was the cover, in my honest opinion, for some of the racial tension that still exists here in our community. Even while these were all COVID adjustments and COVID priorities, there were individuals who wanted to make it strictly about race. We have people really just losing their minds around what’s right and how to be human.

What you probably won’t find from me and my team, we never will put those problems at the forefront of our work. We know there are liable [to be] threats with people threatening with guns and things like that, but we stay the course, and we are continuing to stay the course right now. I believe we are doing the right work, and our board has been phenomenal. This community, collectively, has been supportive, when we talk about the majority.

RT: As you know, some teachers have spoken out about frustrations with working conditions and their relationship with administrators in District 65. What can you tell us about these issues and how you hope to alleviate them in the future?

DH: Our educators work hard, they’re passionate and for the most part, they’re doing their job. They’re coming in and in many cases going above and beyond. But there are some practices that we know, through research, are best, and because people knew my background was turnaround work, they labeled the work that we were doing or the structures that we were bringing as “Turnaround doesn’t work in Evanston 65.”

We never spoke about turnaround work. We talked about best practices and strategies that we know, in any district, are strategies that are used. We ended up pulling some of those things away, like we pulled away teacher evaluations. That’s a lot of work on the administration as well as our teachers, so we eliminated that. We gave them some time to themselves and some half days. I’m going into every single school meeting with teachers and listening to concerns coming from them. It’s our priority as leaders and as a school board to stay the course and do what’s right for students.

We have to get people to understand that we as an administration are not just here to put out fires. We’re in our roles because we are talented, we’ve been in the classroom and we have proven over our careers that these are strategies that work to reach all of our students.

Bottom line, we want to build a structure where educators, administration and our board can get on the same page strategically on how to collaborate and make decisions. You may not hear people out there celebrating that, but that’s what’s happening behind closed doors to really alleviate and address the picket signs in the board meetings or the social media drama that some people decide to kick up.

RT: In the last two months, there have been several threats of violence or lockdowns at schools in Evanston, including at District 65’s Haven Middle School. What would you say to parents and students to allay their fears, and what mitigation strategies do you have in mind moving forward?

DH: I would like our parents and our educators to know that the more we communicate and build those open lines with our children and our students, the better.

We would have preferred that the incident in Haven not be put on social media, and we would have preferred it to just be communicated with an adult, and we could have handled that. But we’ll take it, if that’s the way that a student has to get our attention.

We got some names, and we were able to get to it the night that it happened. I was over in the Fifth Ward at a house talking with that family, and we had EPD [Evanston Police Department] with us, as well, talking with that young man.

We’re working to educate, and we know children are going to be children, and so sometimes, it’s funny to them. We’ve got to make sure they understand these are some very serious times, and this is no longer something you can joke about. Children have access to guns at rates that are alarming, and we have to take every single threat seriously, and we will continue to do that no matter how much time and manpower or human capital it takes for us to address it. 

RT: For the Haven incident in December, what does it mean exactly to investigate a threat of violence and determine that the threat is not credible?

DH: We do a threat assessment, so for example, that night I was able to get to that young man’s home. We met with the mom, we met with the student, and we were able to do an assessment of the possibility of this individual being able to act out an incident.

This individual made a statement to a group of friends, and whether it was serious or not, this individual did not make a threat publicly that they were going to do these things. So we met with him, when this young man explained to us what the scenario was, and we were able to address that and also even talk to some of the other students that were involved in it. He understands there is no joke about shooting up anything, and that night, the mom was very cooperative.

If this was someone that we couldn’t find, or we did the interview and we found that this individual was really distraught and was really trying to do something, then it would have been a different approach to that work. 

RT: In terms of your goals and visions for the future of District 65, what do you hope stays the same, and what do you want to improve or change?

DH: We have some really passionate educators in our district. They care, and they go above and beyond all the time. I would love for that to stay the same. I want our parents to stay connected the way that they’ve been. I have never worked in a district like this, where parents are so committed, and I think it’s beautiful. Whether they’re coming in to complain or compliment, I am very open and excited to hear from them because I know they’re paying attention. That means a lot.

What I would like to change: I would like for every single student who comes through our doors to have the same opportunity when they go into high school to be successful. I want them, more importantly, to be able to use those future-ready skills that will position them to do great.

I would like for all our buildings to be green, every single one of them, where students are not breathing in carbonized air. Wouldn’t it be great if a Fifth Ward school was a net-zero energy building? Think about how powerful that could be for us.

And I would love for this district, more than anything, to make sure that equity becomes more than just a statement or a word, but that it becomes action. And this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. When you talk about a year to five years, the vision is ongoing, and I want our community and our families to be at the table when we talk about this vision. I would love for our teachers and our administrators to be reflective of the population of the students that they’re serving. There’s a lot of pieces for the hope of what’s going to happen here in District 65.

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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