Waters Today: When you first brought ecology to Waters, did you ever imagine it would grow to something like this?
Mr. Leki: Yes.
Given how passionate you are about it, we had a feeling you’d say that! How did it all come to be?
I started at Waters in 1991, as a parent. I was working shift work as a water plant operator for the City of Evanston. 1991 saw the advent of the first LSC's, and we withdrew our son Jamal from prestigious magnet school, and enrolled him at Waters, our low scoring, poverty racked, run down local school. (This story was published in "School Leadership in times of Urban Reform", Bizar, Blazer, Erlbaum Publishing, 2001, ppg 103-121). I chaired Council for 5 years. We were very underprepared for the awesome responsibilities we were given. But in 1992, our Principal retired and in the process of hiring a new one, we were introduced to the ideas of progressive education through colleagues from National-Louis University. This revelation guided our choices through the next 20 years: the integration of the subject areas, de-emphasis on hi-stakes testing, narrative report cards, engaging the real world both inside and outside of school, engaging the parents as co-teachers, co-learners in our adventure in education.
During my last years in the water plant, I returned to college and finished an interdisciplinary degree in ecology, education and neighborhood studies. Shortly after, I was hired by NLU Center for City Schools to bring the "Parent Project" to our school network.
If you weren't at Waters—which is hard to imagine!—what do you think you'd be doing instead?
I might try to help form a community school like one we ran for 8 years when my youngest son was five: the Sunflower School. The parents were the teachers. (I taught music and math). There were 14 kids, all ages, and we always had 3 teachers. What a ratio! We were able to do all sorts of wonderful things that are very hard to do in a big system. We had no grades, and no homework, except to play and read. The kids thrived.
That sounds amazing! Do any other places inspire the work that you do in Chicago? For example, are there other cities you've visited that have a deep respect for nature and have integrated it into the urban landscape?
Not really. I noticed that in Europe, cities and towns STOP. They have boundaries. They don't sprawl over the land as tawdry car dumps, and gas stations, and mini malls. The city ends and the country side begins. I don't know if it is still like that.
Speaking of other places, what are some of the best trips you've taken? I have made a decision not to fly for the past 25 years because of the environmental impacts. So most of the places I visited and loved have been very local. I like taking Metra and Amtrack, but wish they had windows that opened for fresh air. I wish I could fly on my own wings (or broom!) I also have dreamed that there could be public transport on Lake Michigan via sailboat! Imagine boarding downtown or at Montrose Harbor to go over to New Buffalo, or Muskeegon, or to Mackinaw City! Or north to Milwaukee and Door County. Imagine sails billowing with wind power, a bunk, a galley to dine on fish caught over the rail on the boat, ecology lectures, music, star gazing at night. The same with the Chicago River. Imagine tours through the canals to the Des Plaines and Illinois, with stops at all the old river towns, with their charming hotels and restaurants, and beleaguered history. It is true that the world is full of indescribable beauty, and it is important, especially for young people, to experience its majesty, so that they will be inspired to work for its survival.
The earth is in trouble; we know that, and our children will someday bear the weight of our generation's (and previous generation's) failures. Do you feel hopeful?
I feel like apologizing for leaving a world in worse shape than I found it. I think that we have to teach and practice critical thinking about the very foundational belief of capitalism: unending growth, extraction and exploitation of our world and its treasures. I'm encouraged that young people tend to be open minded and justice oriented.
And then there’s the technology piece of the puzzle. What is your advice to parents who feel overwhelmed by the amount of technology their kids are exposed to?
I will tell you what Jerry "the Iceman" Butler told me: "I don't give advice. Everybody wants to give it. Nobody wants to take it!" Still, maybe I would say to lure your children away from the screen by flooding them with the beauty and power of Nature, music, friends, play, dance, food and sleep.
Flooding them with nature sounds like a great plan. To that end, if families want to get more involved with the Ecology program when the pandemic is over, so to speak, where can parents sign up to volunteer?
On the ecology volunteers list at watersecology.org. Parents are an essential part of the Ecology programs—they are asked to lead, to learn, to explore and journal and discover with us at every grade level!
What would your students be surprised to learn about you?
· That my mother was taken by the Nazis to a Labor camp when she was 14.
· That I played piano in a soul band called The New Society.
· That I worked in the copper mines of Arizona as a millwright, was an officer in the Steelworkers Union, and went through two hard strikes during my seven years there.
Wow—no wonder you have so many interesting stories! Let’s end on a positive note: What is your happy place?
The Lake. It is a deep and powerful place, full of mystery.
Thank you so much, Mr. Leki! We can’t wait to see you in the garden when we’re all back together.