Superintendent Witherspoon details final days at ETHS


After a memorable 16 year tenure as ETHS’ superintendent, Eric Witherspoon is retiring at the end of the 2021-22 school year. Throughout his time at ETHS, Witherspoon has made efforts to create systemic change in the academic and social structure of the school through actions that have had dramatic effects on the student experience. 

Most notably, Witherspoon spearheaded efforts to detrack classes and create a Pathway to Honors, an idea that was new to the education field at the time was implemented under Witherspoon’s watch. Neither of these shifts towards equity happened without pushback, however. With regard to detracking classes, the board meetings in 2011 about the potential change were some of the most tumultuous times Witherspoon faced during his tenure.   

“[The process was] grueling. I was getting threats. There were many public board meetings about it,” Witherspoon explains. “It got to the point where we had to start holding meetings in the auditorium with microphones in the aisles. Almost all the speakers were against it. But the board voted unanimously, and [the proposal to detrack ETHS] passed.”

Not only did Witherspoon persevere through the heavy criticism and outrage to detrack ETHS, but he took it a step further by leading an effort to create ‘earned honors,’ a process by which all students in a course have the opportunity to earn honors based on a clearly defined set of expectations. 

Today, Pathway to Honors serves as a response to the longstanding history of tracking that existed at ETHS and still exists across the country—a response that other schools have followed ETHS’ lead on.

“Oak Park River Forest is starting earned honors. Maine Township does earned honors,” Witherspoon says. “I can tell you: it was invented at Evanston Township High School. We invented it.”

Before his time at ETHS, Witherspoon served as superintendent in Des Moines, Iowa and has held a total of four different superintendent positions prior to his time in Des Moines. At the beginning of his education career, Witherspoon started his career as an English teacher, a position he looks back on fondly. 

“I am a high school English teacher,” Witherspoon states. “I chose it because of my love of literature and reading and writing.” 

Throughout his 16 years within ETHS, Withespooon has seen the school go through cultural changes, and attributes much of his success as a superintendent towards being in the same building as students every single day. This opportunity allowed him to more clearly hear student voices and honor different perspectives. 

“It’s been 16 years and, and I do know that having my office in the building has really made a difference for me. Normally, a superintendent, similar to District 65, [is] in a central office. The fact that the superintendent gets to be in the [building is] one of the most memorable parts of my job. [I have loved] all the interaction I’ve been able to have [with] the students over all these years, and I started doing that from the very start,” Witherspoon expresses. 

Witherspoon seized the opportunity to connect with students face-to-face early in his tenure at ETHS. This accessibly led to his desire to detrack ETHS and create a more inclusive environment. In addition, Witherspoon’s efforts led to an increase in graduation rates and academic achievement, a statistic that encompasses ETHS’ commitment to higher education. 

In addition to making decisions with students in mind, Witherspoon has used his role to better ETHS’ facilities and partner with various organizations. For instance, a growing partnership with Northwestern was created under Witherspoon, with the ETHS and Northwestern University partnership office offering a bridge between ETHS and our local university. Classes such as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) are offered for ETHS students to partake in, building relationships between the two institutions. 

Witherspoon has also focused on improvements to staff training and equity, primarily through establishing professional development such as courageous conversations, which offer spaces for both staff and students to discuss topics of race and equity in ETHS. 

“One of the things that I set out early to do is to make this a school of belonging [where everyone] would know that this is a school where they can find a place to be. When you have nearly 4000 students, you want students to realize that [they] have an opportunity to find their niche,” Witherspoon says. “It’s really been important to me to communicate that both through my actions and through [policy].” 

After such a long tenure of success at ETHS, Witherspoon is planning to continue giving back to the Evanston community. 

“It’s very important to me that I not only stay connected but [that] I find ways to give back. I’ve been a part of so many organizations in Evanston, and I’m going to continue to find ways to give back to all aspects of the community,” Witherspoon shares. 

In addition to giving back to his community, Witherspoon is excited to return to his English teacher roots and further his own education. Considering himself an avid reader, Witherspoon shared that he looks forward to having more time to read. He also plans to continue teaching in some capacity, sharing that he would like to focus on writing education moving forward. 

“I enjoy reading. I’m pretty much an avid reader, and I’ll just be able to expand my scope of reading,” Witherspoon shares. “I am [also] going to be doing writing, and I haven’t decided [what type] exactly – there are so many formats and things I might do, and I may have more than one thing going on at the same time, but I will definitely be writing.” 

Beyond the ways to continue his personal education and educating others, he plans on taking some well-deserved time off through a series of expeditions which begin days after he leaves his ETHS office. 

“I do love to travel. I retire on a Thursday, and on Saturday, I get on a plane to Vancouver,” Witherspoon says. “From there, I’m going to get on a cruise, and from there I’m going to go to Alaska!” 

As both the Evanstonian staff and ETHS students, we have greatly appreciated the work Witherspoon has done to make the school we function and exist in a welcoming and safe place. His many efforts over the past 16 years are guaranteed to have a lasting impact on generations of Wildkits to come. Even after Witherspoon retires, hopefully all students and staff remember that it is still a great day to be a WildKit!