Earlier this month, the Evanston Township High School District 202 board named current Principal and Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell as the top candidate to replace Eric Witherspoon as the school’s superintendent.
On Thursday, one group of students and another group of parents and community members got the first chance to interview Campbell in a public setting and hear more about his vision for the future of the ETHS community.
Campbell will also meet with administrators, teachers and staff on Friday, April 1, but the two question-and-answer sessions on Thursday were the only two recorded and livestreamed interviews with Witherspoon’s potential successor.
In both meetings, Campbell shared his experience of growing up on the south side of Chicago as a young Black man, telling the audience that he first pondered a teaching career when his 11th grade English teacher asked him to teach a lesson about the 1942 novella “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. Just a year later, as a senior in high school, that same teacher nominated him for an Illinois Golden Apple award for aspiring educators, an award he ended up winning.
The Chicago Tribune wrote an article about Campbell’s application for the award, and he gave copies of that article from 25 years ago to all of the students, parents and community members who interviewed him on Thursday.
“A friend of mine brought that back to my attention a couple of years ago, but it speaks to my commitment today as a Black male educator because I think I said something in there about wanting to be an accessible leader for other Black boys and other Black children,” Campbell told the parent and community panel Thursday evening. “So that is a constant refrain for me.”
During the two interview sessions, he answered many questions about leadership, community engagement, equity, mental health and more, but one key theme continued coming up in the conversations: proximity and visibility. Time and again, Campbell repeated his goal of being present with community stakeholders, developing relationships with everyone from the mayor to the Northwestern University president and becoming an accessible leader who students, parents, teachers and residents can trust.
In one of the evening’s most insightful moments, one community member participating in Thursday night’s panel asked Campbell about a past decision he made that, in retrospect, he would have handled differently. In response, he recalled a time just before the pandemic when he had to tell the board about the school’s crisis plans for handling the coronavirus.
“Our teachers were watching, and they felt dismissed, unheard and that their lives really didn’t matter,” he said. “I didn’t talk to them. I did not think about how those comments would have felt to them, in a public forum, with the board, without them being at the table. It was terrible.”
To address the frustrations of ETHS teachers after that mistake, Campbell called a special meeting with the entire staff to apologize and to let them know that he knew not including their voice in the conversation was wrong.
And when talking to the panel of ETHS students earlier in the day, he explained that he envisions building a school culture around four main principles: social-emotional learning, equity, postsecondary planning, and literacy. One of his main goals for the next decade is to create an entire team of staff members devoted to career and life education that goes beyond simply preparing for college and instead also highlights alternative pathways available after high school.
A participating student also asked Campbell how he would help students feel safe, respected and heard, noting that some Latinx students at ETHS have talked about how they “feel like ghosts in the hallway.”
“There is no safety without empathy. There is no safety without a conversation,” he said. “Normalizing the discomfort in discussing race and certain aspects of privilege in school and in ETHS and in Evanston, it is uncomfortable, but it does provide space for kids who feel marginalized, feel unseen, feel unheard, to feel safe, to be heard, to be acknowledged.”
As a result, Campbell emphasized that to make progress toward building an equitable school, all students and teachers have to commit themselves to self-reflection and self-awareness.
“Equity work is as much about mirrors as it is about windows,” he said.
When facing questions about where he stands on policing in schools and the presence of school resource officers at ETHS, Campbell added that while he has “always been concerned” about policing in America, he believes that ETHS should have a healthy partnership with law enforcement centered on student safety and equity.
Instead of having a conversation about either completely removing police from ETHS or keeping the system as it currently exists, he suggested creating a new model for how law enforcement and public schools work together and what the role of a school resource officer is in a school building.
At the conclusion of Campbell’s meeting with parent and community representatives, several of the panel’s participants expressed excitement about the prospect of having a Black male superintendent for the first time in ETHS history. A number of parents talked about the importance of showing young students of color in Evanston that they can succeed, just like Campbell has, and others also said that having a Black superintendent could help with hiring more Black and Brown educators, as well.
“You can’t achieve something that you can’t perceive, and so you are a model of Black excellence in that role,” a panel participant said. “And what that means to the next generation of young Black, Brown women and boys is just unimaginable, that they can be raised in a community where the superintendents of both learning institutions are Black men. It’s so inspiring.”