ETHS faculty and staff reflect on Superintendent Eric Witherspoon’s retirement


Photo courtesy of Takumi Iseda

After 16 years as superintendent, Eric Witherspoon will retire this June.

Olivia Alexander, In Focus Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of gun violence. 

When Evanston Township High School/District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon first arrived at the high school in July 2006, he said he quickly realized the school’s structures created racial inequities.

He is set to retire in June, after 16 years at the district. Approved on a 4-3 vote from the Board of Education, Witherspoon came to the district from Des Moines Public Schools. As superintendent, he said his priorities have ranged from closing the racial achievement gap, making capital improvements to promoting a strong sense of student belonging to designing an inclusive dress code. 

For Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, who started in his role amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Witherspoon has been a mentor.

“He’s a legend, and he’ll be missed,” Horton said.

Horton said he meets with Witherspoon weekly to discuss topics from tax increment financing districts to school security. Horton said it seems to him that Witherspoon operates on a set of core values that he doesn’t deviate from — keeping equity at the center and building strong relationships with students.

When Witherspoon announced his retirement in September, former student representative on the District 202 school board, Jesse Chatz (ETHS ’12) said his former classmates from ETHS filled his social media feed with messages reminiscing on how much they love Witherspoon.

“(It means) a lot for a bunch of 27-year-olds to be talking about their high school superintendent,” Chatz said. “You don’t get that often. He has this celebrity-like persona.” 

During his first few years at ETHS, Witherspoon worked to combat the tracking system perpetuating inequity at the school. At the time, a student’s eighth grade test scores determined their eligibility for honors courses at ETHS.

“Those in the highest track got the very best curriculum and materials we felt we could offer,” Witherspoon said. “Those in other tracks — each track really offered them less.”

Witherspoon said while the work to even the academic playing field for freshmen at ETHS is ongoing, he’s pleased with what’s been done so far. 

Most recently, Witherspoon has been known for keeping the school closed throughout the pandemic. ETHS reopened for full in-person instruction in fall 2021 after 18 months of remote and hybrid learning. In December, with the onset of the omicron variant, ETHS briefly transitioned to e-learning.

“As superintendent, all those lives were my responsibility when it came to decisions,” Witherspoon said. 

Chatz said he saw the impact of Witherspoon’s work directly as the district implemented earned honors for freshman biology. The decision meant all students would take one biology course, and students who felt that honors credits were important could earn honors by completing extra assignments. 

Chatz said this was a “first of its kind” move for ETHS, and Witherspoon was its champion, despite resistance and confusion about the changes from the community. 

“He never wavered from his commitment for an equitable education,” Chatz said. “That’s one thing I learned from him is you’re going to be faced with a lot of opposition, you’re going to be faced with a lot of support, but you can’t waver from your position as a leader in a school system.” 

Chatz said seeing Witherspoon’s leadership as just a junior in high school was in part what led him to his current work in education. Today, he’s the communications director for Skokie and Morton Grove School District 69 and Morton Grove School District 70.  

District 202 Board President Pat Savage-Williams said ETHS students love Witherspoon. She said she remembers one day joining him as he greeted students during their lunch period. 

“He walks through the cafeteria and greets every student, and he does that two or three times a week,” she said. “He literally goes up to them and says, ‘How are you doing? Hope you’re having a good day.’” 

Witherspoon said during his last school year, he’s “trying hard not to miss anything.” 

District 202 Vice President Monique Parsons said this sentiment has been a longtime strength for Witherspoon. She said the superintendent is often seen in the community at games and performances, and he’s also been there in times of hardship. 

While a student at ETHS, Parsons’ son lost a classmate and friend to gun violence. Parsons said she had heard about Witherspoon and the changes he was making, but it was hearing the superintendent speak at the student’s funeral when she began to feel proud her son was under his leadership at the school. 

“From that moment on, I knew that he was there to serve every student and not just some,” Parsons said. “He was less concerned about where they came from, which neighborhood they were from, and more concerned about how they were treated when they got to ETHS.” 

Parsons said Witherspoon will be remembered for knowing Evanston could educate all students better, and he made decisions to do so, regardless of the pushback. 

“He came in with the belief that every student has the capacity to learn and to reach their full potential, and that it was the responsibility of him as a leader to make sure that that happened,” Parsons said. “He made sure that students were not being educated based on their zip code or their ward or where they live, but that they were being seen and recognized as students of Evanston Township High School.”

Ilana Arougheti contributed reporting. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @oliviagalex

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