Racial program, protests define ex-president’s term

For months, Mary Rita Luecke presided over racially charged and often disorderly meetings as local residents argued about the best way to help failing minority students.

But those discussions may be her most important accomplishment as president of Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s school board, Luecke said Thursday. Luecke’s one-year term as president ended Monday.

“When we look back on this year, I hope we will look at it as a time when we began to talk about race in an open way,” she said.

Luecke, who was also president from April 2003 to September 2004, did not run for a third term, and Mary Erickson took her place. Luecke will remain on the board until 2009.

Dozens of proposals and curriculum programs have been examined by Luecke during her term as president.

But the last year was dominated by a proposal to establish an African-centered curriculum pilot program at Oakton Elementary School, 436 Ridge Ave.

District 65 will be the first in the country to implement an African-centered curriculum in only part of a school, Luecke said.

“We ended up in the right place,” Luecke said. “It’s wise in the long run at only one school.”

She stood by her original vote against creating the pilot in Kingsley Elementary School, 2300 Green Bay Rd., but expressed regret that the process turned out to be so controversial.

“There’s a profound sense of sadness,” Luecke said. “There’s a big question about how we get past where we are now.”

Luecke said the board should have avoided the fateful March 20 meeting when many audience members sang “We Shall Overcome” and yelled at the board after it rejected a two-school pilot proposal.

“We should not have voted on that proposal until there were selection criteria and an evaluation component in place,” Luecke said.

The hostility of the last few months shows the need to further discuss race, she said.

“The rhetoric has got to be toned down,” Luecke said. “If we can tone down the rhetoric and start talking to each other, we could make some progress.”

In September 2004, Luecke’s first term as president ended when she resigned. She opposed a board decision to extend the contract of Superintendent Hardy Murphy

But Luecke said she has no problems working with Murphy.

“Dr. Murphy and I have always been able to work together,” she said.

In the coming months, the board must confront questions on bilingual education. The district’s Two-Way Immersion program, which combines native English and native Spanish speakers in one classroom and provides instruction in both languages, has grown faster than the district anticipated. Administrators have proposed alternatives to the program.

Luecke suggested the board pursue a non-binding referendum to find the program that “best fits the needs and desires of the community.”

She also said a decision on TWI cannot be made yet.

“The best gauge of the program will be in a couple of years when the program has matured,” Luecke said.

But regardless of the controversy, Luecke denied community members have lost faith in the board.

“I don’t think people that necessarily come to the meetings are reflective of the entire community,” Luecke said.

The board might consider a reorganization of the school system, creating academies specialized in disciplines such as arts, music and African-centered education, Luecke said.

“But we have to be confident that it’s executed in a way that will benefit kids,” she said.

Luecke thinks “it’s too early to tell” if she will pursue a leadership post on the board again. But for the moment, she plans to spend more time on her law firm and her younger daughter, a student at Evanston Township High School.

“At this point, I’m happy to sit back and let others step up to the plate,” Luecke said.

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]