Evanston RoundTable, January 15, 2015
Marcus Campbell thinks schools “need to be redesigned fundamentally from the bottom up.” If he could wave a magic wand at Evanston Township High School, where he is principal and assistant superintendent, he says he’d completely overhaul the school’s structure. “I think the current model is antiquated, it’s based on a 19th-century agrarian system. Instead, I’d redesign the school so students had the opportunity to choose their course of study based on what they want to do after they graduate.”
To make that happen, he’d offer core content plus a menu of technology-related electives. He’d also require students to engage in “service learning,” which is volunteer community service in areas of student interest.
These initiatives “would help students be more motivated and take responsibility for their own learning,” he says.
He himself is partly motivated by what he feels is a troubling disconnect between school work and the life and career goals of students of color. “On one of my first days as principal an African American student told me that school felt like ‘random ass [stuff].’ I told teachers we need to do a better job of helping that student connect to learning.”
“I’m a big advocate of school reform,” says Mr. Campbell. “But I’m also a big critic of school reform. I don’t think schools are doing enough systemically to get at the needs of this generation.”
Mr. Campbell says he intends this spring to canvass teachers “about large, comprehensive school reform in the 21st century. I’m going to ask them, ‘If money were no object, what should school look like?’”
If anyone has a chance to pull off such substantive change, it just might be Mr. Campbell. Now in his second year as principal and assistant superintendent, having succeeded Oscar Hawthorne in 2013, he seems to be highly admired and well liked, and still enjoying an extended honeymoon.
His boss, District 202 School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, says they have a long and solid connection. “He was an English teacher when I got here eight years ago,” he said. “I have had an opportunity to get to know him, nurture him and help prepare him [for his current role].”
Mr. Campbell was recognized early on as a fine teacher. “He related really well to the students and his colleagues,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “But I could also see so many leadership characteristics in him. Every time I was able to move him to another leadership position, he performed very well. He demonstrated the capability, skills and talents to be a good leader.
“Now we work together very closely, and we make a great team,” he said. “We truly operate as partners, colleagues and friends.”
Eric Brown, president of the Teachers’ Council, said he thinks Mr. Campbell is “a breath of fresh air. The teachers here feel we’re heading in a good direction. He is responsive and supportive of the goals and missions of the district. Everyone here wishes him the best. They want him to be successful.”
And Student Senate president M.D. Shelton, a senior, said he meets regularly with Mr. Campbell, often over lunch, to talk about issues. “He’s like a mentor to me,” he added. “Ever since I got here he’s been available when I needed to ask him about something –– whether it’s how to be a responsible African American male, how to get things done and how to make changes in school.”
Despite the fact that “I never thought I’d be principal, not in a million years,” Mr. Campbell’s path to his current position has been fairly rapid and smooth. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, the son of a pastor. He said he learned many leadership and life lessons at his father’s side, as he ministered to a large flock at Christian Youth Missionary Baptist Church. “I saw him deal with a lot of pain, tragedy and triumph. I saw him model all the right things.” A picture of his father, who died in 2004 at the age of 64, hangs above his desk. Two other siblings have also passed away; a younger sister with whom he is especially close plans to go to medical school to become a doctor.
He graduated with a major in English and minors in education and African American Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana in 2001 and started teaching English at ETHS right out of college. He liked teaching Dickens and Shakespeare, as well as modern classics by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He taught 10 years, until 2011, and then was promoted to director, Student Supports and Racial Equity. The next year he took over as director of all student programs, including Title I, AVID, STAY and the study centers. He was named associate principal of Academic Affairs in 2012.
He says the role of principal encompasses many jobs and many audiences. “I talk with students, parents, teachers, board members, district office personnel, and the community. There isn’t a constituency in the school that it would be inappropriate for me to talk to –– everyone, at all levels, all the time, about everything.”
He says, given his breadth of experience as a teacher and administrator, he feels “comfortable” in these conversations.
“I adore the students. I don’t want to sound trite, but they’re a very special group of young people. They’re the reason I show up at work every day. I’ve always felt that way.”
He is also hugely positive about the institution. “This is a great organization, it’s just very complex. This is a very large high school.”
Indeed, ETHS has more than 3,000 students and almost 600 employees, including 250 teachers, a majority of whom have master’s degrees and beyond. The school buildings encompass more than a million square feet, with four miles of corridors. The campus sits on 62 acres of land. The school’s annual budget is $80 million. ETHS is ranked one of the top 2% to 3 % of high schools in the nation and one of the most diverse in Illinois.
“The school’s sheer size and complexity make for one of the job’s biggest challenges,” Mr. Campbell says. “When we think about a new program, it requires a lot of thought and care to implement. To take just one example, the daily master schedule is developed by system engineers –– that’s how complicated it is!”
Mr. Campbell listed among his other challenges:
- Navigating state mandates and requirements
- Ensuring instructional and school processes run smoothly
- Optimizing the day-to-day climate among students and staff
- Closing the achievement gap between white, Hispanic and African American students
Regarding the gap, he says progress is being made. He calls the revamping of freshman Humanities a “huge” development. “Now we’re exposing many more students, particularly in those groups that were not meeting standards, to a more rigorous program academically.”
He cites data –– such as 64% of all juniors and seniors have taken at least one AP course, the dropout rate of 1.1% is the lowest ever, and for the first time more than 40% of black students are meeting or exceeding state reading standards –– as evidence of success.
“The data also tell us problems still exist, but in our last presentation to the Board, we indicated we felt we were heading in the right direction.”
Aside from the big challenges, he says, are the “day-to-day things with teenagers and adults. Multiple constituents can push you in different directions. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, based on what I think is right for the district and the school.”
Of course, he does not work in a vacuum. He and Dr. Witherspoon have a close and effective working relationship. “We are in constant communication. I talk to him all the time about everything,” Mr. Campbell says, laughing. “If I don’t see him at least once a day, it’s unusual. We work closely together to make sure things are running smoothly.”
“This is a fun job,” he says. “I enjoy the challenges. It’s like a puzzle, putting all the pieces together. There’s never a dull moment.”
It has helped, he said, to come through the ranks to his current position. “I’ve always been very observant. And over the years I’ve been able to get a pulse for how we think and operate as an institution,” he says.
“I’ve kept my contacts with teachers who mentored and supported me and taught me what it was like to be an instructional leader. I’m still a teacher at heart. And I still learn from teachers, and students, all the time. I want to know: what are the hot topics? What are the things that need to be fixed? And I think teachers appreciate that I genuinely want to know what they are thinking.”
To help in the job, he makes himself available to everyone who needs to speak to him. He also reaches out to teachers in an annual survey to get candid feedback about school issues and problems.
“I study ETHS all the time,” he says. “I’m always into the data, into my email, into Board reports, the Pilot, having conversations. I have to –– to stay on top of things.”
When he’s not at work, he spends time with his two sons, ages 7 and 4; likes to ride his bike; and enjoys TV series such as “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones.” The last good book he read was Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath.”
His goal, he says, is to be a school superintendent some day. He earned his master’s degree in Education from DePaul University in 2007 and is finishing his Ph.D. at National Lewis University. His doctoral dissertation is on systemic transformation through detracking. He teaches a class at Northwestern on the “Social Context of Urban Education.”
He has Dr. Witherspoon’s support. “We are so fortunate to have him here at ETHS,” he says. “I know some day Marcus Campbell will be a fine superintendent. If the opportunity is here [in District 202] for him, I think that would be terrific.”
But Mr. Campbell makes it clear he’s in no hurry. “I’m not ready [to be a superintendent] yet. I could be principal here for another 10 years. There’s still a lot for me to learn!”