Future District 65 superintendent dedicates life to educating children

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Courtesy of Devon Horton

Devon Horton (right) visits one of Jefferson County Public Schools’ alternative schools after it instituted Career and Technical Education. Horton will become District 65’s superintendent in July.

Molly Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

LMNOP: It’s a string of letters that many schoolchildren learn from the alphabet song. But when Devon Horton was in high school tutoring an eighth grader, he learned his student couldn’t identify “M” in the dictionary. Horton said he asked the educator overseeing the program how he should help him.

The teacher’s response: That’s not our problem.

Horton, set to become superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in July, said this moment inspired him to work in education.

“To hear a teacher – working in a summer intervention program – say that, did something to me,” Horton said. “I knew then, right then and there, and I majored in elementary education when I went to college.”

Even before that, he said his mother raised him to prioritize education. Horton grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project in Chicago, before moving to the Jeffery Manor neighborhood.

He added his mother was an “active parent” who allowed him to attend Culver Military Academy, a boarding school in Indiana, after he graduated eighth grade.

“I really say that my leadership skills happened at Culver,” Horton said. “And being the third highest ranked cadet and African American, that was really powerful.”

Horton attended Jackson State University for his undergraduate degree. After he graduated and entered the workforce, he lived with his sister Latrice Madkins, who said she could see his passion.

“That first year of teaching, he would come home with these books and these bags and talk about these children,” Madkins said. “He always had these set of students that he’d hone in on and really talked about all the time and his efforts to make them better.”

His first job was at Bouchet Elementary Math and Science Academy, where he taught for five years before transferring to Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy in 2005. When Patricia McCann, principal of Mays, interviewed him, she said she asked him not to go to any other job interviews because she was so impressed. Now, she said she is “peacock proud” of him being named superintendent.

CJ Rodgers, a former colleague, said there isn’t anyone better at building relationships than Horton.

“Devon always went above and beyond to his players and his students,” Rodgers said. “To this day, they still reach out and still connect. I’ve seen really great parents not do for their kids what Devon did for his students.”

One of the children he mentored was Kennrith Foster. When he was in fifth grade, Foster said Horton persistently asked him if he wanted to join the basketball team. He described, laughing, how he’d react by running away from Horton. But once he joined, he decided to stay.

Foster said he was having a hard time at home in sixth grade, and though he wasn’t his teacher, Horton said he noticed him missing school fairly often. When Foster wasn’t at school when a science project was due, Horton went to Foster’s house and found out the sixth grader didn’t have the materials to complete it. Horton drove him to buy what he needed, but Foster said it didn’t stop there.

“He pretty much took me in from that day forward,” Foster said. “When he dropped me off back at home, he realized my environment that I was living in wasn’t the best for me, and right then and there, he was like, ‘Hey, I see this your situation isn’t the best here, would you want to come and stay with me for the rest of the school year?”

Ultimately, Foster stayed with Horton until eighth grade. He said Horton became a role model and father figure in his life and during that timespan, he grew a lot.

Horton said he wanted to help students beyond schoolwork because many of them are bright and just need support.

“I understood that every student had special talents, and it was my responsibility as a teacher to really cultivate and bring up those talents,” Horton said. “Kids don’t care about reading and math if they know you don’t care about them.”

Horton later served as assistant principal at Mays and then at Wendell Phillips Academy High School. After one year in an assistant role, he was promoted to principal of Phillips. He then became deputy superintendent of East St. Louis District 189 and is currently chief of schools at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

Paige Hartstern, who is part of his assistant superintendent team at JCPS, said he’s great with collaboration, while current colleague Alicia Averette said everyone wants to work with and for him.

“I have not heard one negative thing about him or his leadership,” Averette said. “He is very humble but he can get the work done.”

The second year he was principal of Phillips, Chicago Public Schools rated the school in “Excelling standing,” after it had “Probation” status for years, according to a WGNTV article. Horton called this a “highlight” of his career.

Meanwhile, in District 189, he said he instituted cohort managers to support students in completing post-secondary plans.

According to the District 65 website, 97 percent of the District 189 classes of 2016 and 2017 were accepted into a college, military, or trade school. Additionally, they were awarded $25 million in scholarships, compared to the $5 million of 10 previous graduating classes.

Foster said it isn’t by “coincidence” that Horton sees growth everywhere he goes.

“His ability to lock in, set goals, and go after them with an intensity, and a fierceness, and a great focus, it allows him to build these programs and these districts to be successful,” Foster said.

At JCPS, Horton said he created racial equity plans and furthered restorative practices.
District 65 faces persistent opportunity gaps between white and black students, low-income and high-income students and students with and without disabilities, according to a report presented at Monday’s board meeting. Horton had previously said he wants to use the community’s desire for change in regard to racial and social equity to close the district’s achievement gaps.

He already has some goals he hopes to accomplish, but Horton said when he goes into a new district, he likes to “love, listen, and learn.”

“I’m excited to be a part of District 65,” Horton said. “I am going to give this district of 150% of the best I have, and I’m going to continue to move this district in the right direction.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one of Horton’s former colleagues. Horton’s former colleague’s name is CJ Rodgers. The Daily regrets the error.

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