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In 2005, Eric Witherspoon was in his eighth year as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa. He ran the largest public school district in the state, with more than 30,000 students and dozens of individual school buildings.
At the time, recruiters, consultants and education leaders would often try to lure him to other jobs in different districts across the country, Witherspoon said, but he was not looking to leave Des Moines until one recruiter brought up a school that stopped him in his tracks.
“I know that you’re not on the market, but would you consider Evanston Township High School?” the recruiter asked him at an education conference that year.
He still remembers thinking, “Wow, Evanston Township High School.” At that time, and it is still true today, ETHS had a national reputation for high-achieving students, outstanding teachers and a community that valued and supported public education, Witherspoon said.
Yet, superintendents rarely downsize to districts with fewer students and fewer schools, he said. In his previous three positions leading districts, he moved to a larger district with more employees each time. But this time, the pull from ETHS was too strong to ignore.
“I am being enticed with this district with one school, and only high school, but I knew the reputation of ETHS,” Witherspoon said. “In the world of education, it has a remarkable reputation. It has been a leader in so many innovative things in education through its entire history, and some of the superintendents who came before me were really, in their own right, renowned.”
The ETHS board picked Witherspoon as superintendent in July 2006, and 16 years later, on June 30, he is set to retire as a figure beloved by many and a mainstay in the community.
At ETHS he ushered in significant changes to many of the basic school structures and operations, hoping to create a more equitable learning environment. With the help and support of the board, Witherspoon oversaw the detracking of students in freshman English, history and biology courses – giving less weight to standardized test performance to determine students’ eligibility for accelerated classes. He also helped design an earned honors program where most ninth graders start in the same level classes with the same instruction. From there, they earn their way into advanced courses based on classroom merit.
When ETHS first rolled out that program in 2011, all freshmen scoring above the 40th percentile in history and English and the 50th percentile in biology qualified for the “earned honors” course in each of those subjects.
In a sit-down interview with the RoundTable, Witherspoon said he thinks of ETHS as “the crown jewel of Evanston,” a place at the center of the city that every child knows.
He said the school represents “a generational pride in valuing education, a generational pride in valuing this high school and a generational pride in this high school being vital to the identity of our community.”
Coming from a large district in Des Moines where he worked in a downtown central office, Witherspoon said he knew that working in a single-school district and spending most of his time in the same building as the students would be a completely different experience.
He decided from day one he needed to be visible and present with the students and staff throughout the building. He remembers making a point of greeting students entering ETHS on the very first school day of his first year in 2006. He would often stand by the buses and say goodbye to the students, many of whom called him “Spoon.”
That’s when the now iconic Witherspoon mantra “It’s a great day to be a Wildkit!” was born.
To get to know the people and the school community better while he adjusted to life in a new city, he would pop around the building and spend 20 or 30 minutes in different classrooms. Within just a few weeks, he said, he started to realize that there were “two schools” within ETHS, one for white kids and one for students of color.
“I was able to observe our racial segregation right away, and had I not been living in the building, it may have taken me a little longer,” Witherspoon said. “We were racially and culturally rich in the public spaces, in the hallways, in the cafeterias. But when classes started, the school would, in many ways, segregate because we had all this tracking, all these levels of classes all the way from straight honors down to, euphemistically, what we called ‘enriched.’ ”
In his early days, the straight honors and advanced placement classes predominately consisted of white students, while the regular and enriched courses were almost entirely composed of Black and Brown students, Witherspoon said. On a day he called “life changing” during his first semester, he was seated in the back of an enriched class to observe that day’s lesson.
“I slid into a desk, and a young man next to me, a Black male, leaned over to me and said, ‘This is the dummy class,’ ” Witherspoon said. “And I’ll never forget that. Every time I think about it, it just makes me well up inside. And I looked around that class, I learned it was a math class. I counted – there were 15 students in that room – 14 of them were Black males, and one was a Black female.”
Witherspoon said he told that story in an all-staff meeting in the spring of 2007, pointing out that ETHS was complicit in institutionalized racism and creating segregated classes. He said at that moment, he made it his primary goal to address the racial divide within the school and make equity a priority for the entire staff.
ETHS District 202 School Board President Pat Savage-Williams, who has had that title since 2015, first met Witherspoon during his early years when her daughter, who graduated in 2012, was a student. Her first impression? He “seemed like another white guy to me,” she said, because he talked about equity and wanting to give more opportunities to marginalized students, but she had no expectation the superintendent would change anything.
But Savage-Williams joined a school committee researching the idea of detracking students. Back then, every freshman’s course load was mostly determined by the standardized test scores they took in eighth grade.
But, Witherspoon said, moving up a course level between school years was “statistically impossible” because students in the lower level classes did not have access to the kind of training and resources to prepare for a higher level. Despite the controversy and the racial divide at ETHS, Savage-Williams and her committee ultimately recommended detracking to the school board.
Witherspoon and Savage-Williams said the public comments to the board were mostly in favor of keeping tracking and fiercely against the change. Most people mistakenly thought the plan would do away with honors and advanced classes entirely.
Yet, the board ultimately voted unanimously in December 2010 to end most tracking for English, history and biology classes. Instead, any ninth grader performing above the 40th percentile in English and history and the 50th percentile in biology could take the “earned honors” classes.
Witherspoon and his team then developed that concept of earned honors, where most freshmen take the same course at the same level with the same curriculum and textbooks. Students can perform their way into honors based on teacher evaluations, test scores and overall merit. Witherspoon said the community was less opposed to this than he expected. In fact, the course plans and curriculum are still in place today.
“He’s pretty courageous, and he’s willing to put himself out there and put himself in the position of being unsafe because he believes in this so much,” Savage-Williams said. “I could see him leading people toward this whole idea of getting rid of some of these structures that promoted and held up racial divide in Evanston at ETHS, [to] making it a school where all students felt they belonged.”
A persistent opportunity gap
Witherspoon’s efforts of detracking and earned honors had clear results, making honors and AP courses more accessible to students of color and desegregating classes at ETHS.
But detracking, new student support services put in place under Witherspoon and an equity-driven curriculum have not yet significantly affected statistics such as Grade Point Averages, standardized test scores and college readiness of marginalized students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Illinois requires a GPA of 2.8 or more to be considered college- and career-ready. In the 2020-21 academic year, the only demographic groups within the ETHS Class of 2021 that did not have an average GPA of at least 2.8 were students who are Black and Hispanic, had disabilities and those part of the free or reduced lunch programs. The average GPA for the graduating class was 3.17.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning heavily impacted test scores and daily learning for the Class of 2021, the difference in scores among different demographic groups is indicative of a broader trend.
Between 2007 and 2019, there was little progress in reading achievement among ETHS juniors and a slight decline in math achievement when analyzing the percentage of students meeting state standards.
As shown in the chart below, Black, Hispanic, low-income and special education students have not made significant improvements in reading scores or ability during Witherspoon’s tenure (between 2007 and 2017). Up to 2015, ETHS used scores from the Prairie State Achievement Examination – the ACT and an exam called the WorkKeys test – to measure reading and math proficiency. Between 2015 and 2018, the school calculated reading and math skills based on ACT performance.
The chart below also shows how math proficiency rates across student demographic groups at ETHS have mostly mirrored reading proficiency rates during Witherspoon’s time as superintendent from 2007 through 2017.
After 2018, ETHS started to measure the percentages of students proficient in reading and math according to a mix of SAT performance, Advanced Placement exam scores and GPA. Students have only to meet one threshold to qualify as proficient in reading and math. For example, they could receive a grade of A, B or C in an advanced math or English course or an SAT score of 480 or higher on the reading section or 530 or higher on math.
A spike in math proficiency occurring in 2018, not shown in the chart, coincided with the shift to including course grades as a qualifier for math skills, rather than using standardized test scores alone. Not only can students achieve a grade of A, B or C in an advanced math course to be proficient in math by ETHS definitions, but students can also qualify as proficient with an A, B or C in an algebra 2 class as well.
Starting in 2017, the Illinois State Board of Education shifted to using the SAT, rather than the ACT, as its mandated test given to 11th graders, and ISBE set its own benchmark scores on the SAT to determine if a student met the state’s learning standards. ISBE’s benchmark scores are higher than the college readiness scores set by the College Board for the SAT.
The chart below shows the percentages of Black, Hispanic and white students who met those state benchmarks in 2019.
Both Witherspoon and Savage-Williams pointed out that ETHS does not exist in a bubble, and they said students in Evanston are still affected by the consequences of systemic racism in their everyday lives regardless of ETHS equity work. Considering the entire school history, detracking and equity are still in the early stages, and more time will tell if those programs eventually help improve academic achievement for students of color, Savage-Williams said.
Plus, standardized tests are not the fairest way to calculate a student’s talent or ability, Witherspoon argued. “Could it be that a timed, standardized test is not the only way to measure somebody’s understanding, knowledge, achievement and preparedness for life?” he asked. “That’s one big factor.”
Reflecting on his career, Witherspoon said he does not have regrets over any of the decisions he made, and he said he always worked closely with other administrators and faculty to make the decision he thought was morally right. The important thing for him was always to analyze how his decisions affected different people in different ways, and how he could have communicated better with students and families.
On July 1 – a day after Witherspoon’s official retirement – Assistant Superintendent and Principal Marcus Campbell will become the first Black person to be the ETHS superintendent. Witherspoon has described Campbell succeeding him as “a dream come true.” Campbell started teaching English at ETHS in 2001, and he became the principal under Witherspoon in 2013.
“The legacy that I’m hoping Marcus will take from Eric is just the legacy of honesty and courage,” Savage-Williams said. “But it even feels odd for me to say that because I believe Marcus has that already.”
As for the advice that Witherspoon would give Campbell, he said having passion and care for the students and their wellbeing will make everything else come more easily.
“Love the job and love the students, and if you do that, you’re going to have the kind of career and joy that I have found for 33 years of being a superintendent,” Witherspoon said. “Most superintendents don’t last 33 years, and right up to this moment, I’m still not counting the days because I still find joy everyday, because I love these kids and I love the work that I am doing.”