Teachers’ union leader takes many memories with her into retirement

July 6, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Neva Luke, who is retiring as Issaquah Education Association president, sits in her office with a picture of her and husband Pat Ciairelli, and a framed Rosie the Riveter World War II poster. By Greg Farrar

Neva Luke, 60, cleared the treasure trove of memories from her office at the Issaquah Education Association in the days leading up to her retirement from the Issaquah School District.

Photos of her travels to Versailles with her husband, Pat Ciairelli, the framed placard of Rosie the Riveter saying “We can do it!” and a card from her sister of Gilda Radner’s “Saturday Night Live” character Roseanne Roseannadanna, whining that “It’s always something,” — all are mementos of a life dedicated to helping children and advancing public education.

“Really, it was not an easy decision to make,” she said of her retirement June 30. “This job is very special to me, but it is also very demanding and I am gone a lot of the time. I feel, at this point, my family needs more of my time.”

Luke graduated from the University of Washington in 1972 with bachelors’ degrees in French and history. She started her career teaching French and social studies in Seattle.

Luke and her first husband settled in Issaquah when their home was completed in 1980. That year, she began teaching French, language arts, social studies and math at Issaquah High School, where she was also the cheerleading adviser.

She moved to Issaquah Middle School in 1988 to teach French, language arts, math and science. There, she also made a lifelong friend of then-Principal Ron Thiele.

“She is very warm and a pleasant person, who obviously cares a lot about kids and cares a lot about public education,” said Thiele, now associate superintendent. “She had good instructional skills and good class management skills, but it was more that she cares about the kids’ problems and she would help them work through.

“Students gravitated to her.”

“On a personal level, I’ve just always loved kids. I find them so energizing. That is part of why I teach,” Luke said. “I also love working to advance public education for our kids and I love working with the parents, too. I can relate to them. As a parent of two daughters who went to school here, I’ve been on every side of the desk.”

Despite being a teacher, Luke has remained a student and earned her master’s degree in education from the UW in 1999.

In 2006, she took a leave of absence from the district to become the teachers’ association president.

In her four years, there’s been a lot of change to cope with: a new superintendent; shrinking education budgets; blustery snowstorms canceling school; and a movement to overhaul the public education system.

But building collaborative working relationships, including with the Parents, Teachers and Students Association and the Issaquah Schools Foundation, is one of the association’s largest accomplishments in her tenure.

“I didn’t want to be like Ken Griffey, where someone says ‘Neva, you really should have retired last year.’ I think we’re in a good place, right now for transition,” she said with a chuckle. “I feel like we have good relationships with district administrators, like Steve Rasmussen, good relationships with the PTA and ISF and we have someone who will continue to be a strong leader for our association.”

Phyllis Runyon, a speech and language pathologist in the district, and Luke’s colleague and friend, was elected to the position by the union membership.

“Neva is always supportive of public education and the importance of educating all children and students to the highest level. Neva is a true advocate of teachers and the teaching profession,” Rasmussen wrote in an e-mail. “I will miss our monthly meetings and dialogue focused on improving teaching and learning. I’ve most enjoyed her honesty, commitment, sense of humor, laughter and devotion to all staff that make education happen in the district for all of our kids.”

“I feel very fortunate I have been able to live here, to have my kids go to school here and to have had my career here,” Luke said. “It has been a blessing.”

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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