Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from District 65 officials and a link to an essay written in tribute to Jerry Succes by his colleagues at Willard Elementary School.
Jerry Succes immigrated to the United States from Haiti with his family in 1977, when he was just 8, and they settled in Evanston, a city thousands of miles away from where he and his brothers were born in the Caribbean.
His parents moved to Chicago a few months before he and his brothers did, and they ended up in Evanston because they had friends and relatives already living there.
He was a bright-eyed elementary schooler eager to make friends at Lincolnwood Elementary, but he did not yet know a word of English when he arrived.
Luckily, Evanston had a relatively large Haitian and Jamaican population at the time, so he and his brothers started hanging out with other immigrants, who helped them learn English. He still remembers watching Sesame Street after school as a kid to learn new words.
To this day, the experience of arriving in Evanston as a young child shapes how he does his job as an educator and administrator in District 65, Succes said.
In a public education career spanning more than three decades, Succes has worked in every single public school in Evanston, including Evanston Township High School, in roles from summer camp coach to lunchroom supervisor to reading specialist.
He became an assistant principal at Oakton Elementary School 13 years ago, and he spent the last nine years in the same position at Willard Elementary, where he has made connections with hundreds of students, staff members, teachers and parents.
“Even when I was coaching at schools in the summertime, I would make sure I knew the custodians,” Succes told the RoundTable in a phone interview this week.
“I would make sure I knew whatever teacher was there. I would make sure I knew the principal. Even the superintendent would come by the school, and I would be like ‘Hey, this is who I am. I’m going to be a teacher here one day.’”
But this school year, District 65 announced a restructuring of the assistant principal role and required all assistant principals in the district to reapply for their positions. At Willard, a hiring committee made up of educators and staff recommended Succes for the same job he has had for nine years, but the principal ultimately decided against rehiring him, according to teachers and parents at the school.
Willard Principal Charmekia McCoy did not respond to an email and a phone call from the RoundTable asking for more information about why Succes was not rehired.
“We cannot share any information related to personnel decisions,” District 65 Executive Director of Communications Melissa Messinger told the RoundTable in an email.
After the school community first heard about Succes not returning to Willard for this upcoming academic year, parents circulated a petition asking the district to reinstate him as assistant principal and attended school board meetings wearing buttons to support him.
“The fact that he is not being rehired as AP at Willard has had a ripple effect on our community, causing much pain and heartbreak,” said Puamuh Ghogomu, the father of two Willard students, during the public comment section of the April 18 school board meeting. “He cares deeply for Willard students, deeply about building relationships and has done so with teachers, staff, students and parents.”
Just weeks ago, toward the end of the District 65 school year, many Willard teachers gathered to brainstorm ways to honor Succes and his devotion to the community. In the end, they decided to write a letter together about his career at Willard and what he has meant to educators, students and parents over the years.
“We wanted to do a tribute to him, just because it’s very important for us that the community and everyone knows that this was not him walking away,” one of the teachers, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid backlash from other district employees, told the RoundTable. “We didn’t want anyone to think that Jerry left because he no longer wanted to be part of the district.”
According to that teacher, Success is one of the only administrators she has ever known who would volunteer to substitute teach himself during the day if a teacher was out sick, and he would also always dress up with the kids for Halloween or the celebration of the 100th day of school.
He made it a point to hang out in classrooms with the students and teachers beyond the mandatory evaluation time periods, and even this year, decades after he was a lunchroom supervisor, he still would wipe down the cafeteria tables and vacuum the floors whenever they got dirty.
Succes is a self-described extrovert and a “people person,” and he would begin every morning at Willard by writing his own “joke of the day” on a whiteboard. He has a collaborative, team-player leadership style, he said.
“I relate to the kids a lot. They look at me, and I’m not just an assistant principal or an adult or an educator,” he said. “I’m more or less one of them. Not only did I have to learn the English language and master it – and I’m still learning the English language – I’m still learning new things every day.”
According to Willard teachers, Succes offers the perfect combination of playfulness and seriousness. He cares about the staff both professionally and personally, one teacher said, and he shows students how to be goofy when it’s appropriate and how to get to work when it comes time to focus.
This coming school year, he will be an interventionist at Haven Middle School, where he will offer extra reading and math support to students who need the help.
At the end of the current year, the Willard PTA Council raised the money to name a buddy bench outside the school in his honor. He, his wife, Lori, and his son Jerry, Jr., were on hand for the dedication.
“Jerry is a man who is loved and respected by the Willard community,” teachers wrote in their tribute letter to him. “He was always there to offer support, guidance, and even a joke to make you smile. His compassion and understanding has made him an ideal boss.”
Succes has been an Evanston resident and an active member of the community for 45 years at this point, and he does not plan on going anywhere anytime soon, he said. One of the special parts of living in the community that you serve, he told the RoundTable, is running into former students and parents at the grocery store or the pharmacy.
“I hope I made a positive impact and was an influence on our students. I hope they look back and say, ‘I learned this from Mr. Succes,’ or, ‘I appreciated him doing this because it helped me to do this,’” he said. “I hope in my role and in my time there that I was a positive influence with the teachers, staff, students – as well as the parents and the community.”