After longtime Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon retired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, a familiar face – Principal and Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell – stepped into those shoes.

Campbell has spent his entire career in education at ETHS, going from a rank-and-file English teacher to the director of student supports and racial equity and eventually to the superintendent’s office last July.

Campbell sits in his new office on Wednesday, Jan. 25. His desk is 140-years-old and has been used by every superintendent in ETHS history. Credit: Duncan Agnew

In his interviews with the school board before landing the job, Campbell identified social-emotional learning, safety, postsecondary planning and equity as four key focuses of his tenure as superintendent. In an effort to better understand his priorities, the RoundTable has sought an interview with Campbell since September. 

This week, ETHS gave the RoundTable 30 minutes with the new superintendent, so the conversation was far from exhaustive, but we tried to address the key issues. Here’s what Campbell had to say.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

What was it like joining ETHS as a teacher more than 20 years ago, and how did that experience compare to the culture and environment at the school today?

I remember being really excited to be here. When I got the job, I was 22, and my dad said to me, “That’s a great place. Never leave.” Those were his exact words. I remember my first impression was “Oh my gosh. There’s so many smart people that work here.” It was a little intimidating, but I learned from a lot of veteran teachers.

The school district, at the time, was working to address the racial disparities in achievement data, even prior to the requirements of No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s. Fast forward 20-plus years, and I think we’re much better at having that conversation. But I think we’re still trying to figure out how we address the disparities in a way that opens up opportunities and outcomes for kids. 

But a lot of the culture is still the same. Our culture is very stimulating, and the kids have always been great, always have had a voice. I learned how to lead in an environment like that. I learned everything about instruction from being a teacher here. I feel very fortunate. I’m not an Evanstonian, but I feel like a homegrown Evanston leader.

What’s a challenge you faced during these first six months or so as superintendent?

There’s one issue that came up in the fall, when the body was discovered on the campus. I called Dr. Witherspoon, who said “Most superintendents will never have to deal with this in their entire career, and here you have it in your first couple of months.” That was hard, because it’s just so disconcerting. We were as responsive as we could be, but it’s still so unsettling for students and for the staff. This is school, right? That really hit close to home for all of us. That was a difficult day.

You’ve said in the past that you would prefer not to install metal detectors outside the school, though you’ve also mentioned the possibility of some kind of weapons detection system. Where do you stand on that issue today? 

We have wrestled with that, and are wrestling with that at the moment. Many students have shared with me in 1-on-1s or in feedback forums that they don’t want metal detectors. If there’s a way that we can be practical that gets us to the same place – especially when we aren’t the ones looking for guns because that’s not what we do, as educators – maybe we should go that route. 

The whole essential question is how do we maintain our humanity and have this conversation? That’s a real question. Maybe there are ways to do that, and that’s the direction that we plan to act in. 

One of your main priorities is narrowing the gap in academic opportunities and outcomes by race, gender, wealth and ability status, but that gap has largely persisted over the past decade. Does that mean we need to change how we measure success, or change our approach to accomplishing this goal? 

Campbell and Principal Taya Kinzie greet students and staff as they arrive for the first day of school in August. Credit: Richard Cahan

I wouldn’t say change the measure. I would say let’s expand the measures, plural. Because Advanced Placement, that’s one indicator. If this is about access for kids who traditionally were not in those classes, that’s something we can do. 

But it’s also looking at other indicators like dual credit, certifications, apprenticeships, internships, work-based learning opportunities. Those are other means that we can look at to say “Hey, we’re doing better here and here.” But I don’t want to bypass AP because AP is an access point. It creates social capital, it creates academic capital that a lot of our kids need to get them to the next place. That’s just the fact of the matter. 

Some people think that Advanced Placement is normed in white supremacy, and it might be. But that doesn’t mean that our students should not have access to that capital, especially if they have goals and dreams and aspirations. It’s what I had as a kid on the South Side. My Black teachers encouraged me and my Black friends to do AP because it was an access point. 

In last year’s 5Essentials survey, 28% of ETHS teachers said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “I usually look forward to each working day at this school.” How can you reestablish the joy of teaching for these educators who have been through a very difficult few years? 

As schools were politicized and the health, safety and well-being of teachers became political, morale across the country tanked. And we were also still dealing with very real consequences of the pandemic – mask wearing, the anxieties around Covid and what we don’t know, the trauma around deaths, the students coming back to an environment that was really unfamiliar to them. It wasn’t normal school, and everything felt so uncertain.

I believe that we are in a different place this year. School, at this point, has felt a bit more normal, although it’s still very different, having had these gaps in expectations and learning. But just talking about it builds trust. Naming that some days, it’s really hard to continue to work through this, and to be honest about it, not just say that everything is great.

I’ve been trying to stay very proximate to these concerns. We’ve hosted a lot of what we call “talking circles” to sit and process. We’re all having a very human experience, and to connect around our own humanity and heal in solidarity, that’s what we’ve been talking about this year.

What would you want to tell the Evanston community?

I appreciate all the support that ETHS has gotten over the years. Our parents have been very supportive. I want to encourage parents to continue to stay supportive of their students, and to continue to be patient with us as we figure some things out. But I want to thank the community for their ongoing support, because this town has really been amazing. Evanston has been a great place to work, so I just want to thank everybody for that, and I really mean that. I count my blessings. 

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Duncan Agnew

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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