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Gay man makes history on local school board
by Charlsie Dewey

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On April 5, residents in the Evanston-Skokie School District 65 region elected three new school board members, including openly gay candidate Richard Rykhus.

Rykhus is the first openly gay man to serve on the school board in the district. His appointment will begin upon the conclusion of a swearing in ceremony scheduled for May 2.

A transplant to Evanston, Rykhus grew up in Michigan, where his parents were both educators. His father's career included positions as a teacher, principal and superintendent; his mother worked as a teacher.

Rykhus attended Catholic schools as a child and then attended a public high school. He was involved in sports and drama, playing varsity tennis and acting in many school productions.

He said that though his parents were committed to public education their Catholic religion impacted their decision to send Rykhus to private schools. Still, he said that his parent's always believed in the importance of quality public education to the success of a community.

Having two educators as parent's impacted Rykhus and influenced his interest and understanding in the field of education. He said, "There's no doubt that their focus and commitment to education really did sort of genetically find its way to me. Obviously there is nothing genetic about it, but when you are surrounded by educators and a lot of their friends who are educators, the topics that are covered when you are having dinner or reading and talking, you just soak it up in a way that I think people from non-educator families don't have the same opportunity to do. I would say that it had a profound impact on me."

Although he did not grow up to become a teacher himself, education remained an important area of interest for him. He began his career in training and business development after earning bachelor of art degrees in both marketing and Spanish from Michigan State University. He later went back to school and earned a masters degree in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, and currently works in the field of corporate learning as a director of strategic learning for Grant Thornton LLP.

Having an even greater impact on his continuing interest in education, and the reason that really helped him make the decision to run for school board, was the adoption of his son, Ty'rith, with his partner Carlos.

"We have eight years left in the school district. We know that there is a long road ahead of us in terms of the education that we hope our son will be able to get. Secondly, a few years ago we started paying more attention to what was going on at the board level. We would go to the meetings and I would leave scratching my head about some of the priorities that they were talking about and some of the conclusions they reached that were different than what I thought the data was telling them and elements of data that were not being considered. There were several choices that were made over the last year that really reinforced that for me. I decided I either needed to deal with things as they are or I needed to take action."

In addition to his professional background and personal stake in helping mold the district, Rykhus also has been actively involved in volunteer positions that he believes have equipped him with the skills to advocate effectively.

He held volunteer positions with both Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education, where he was an advocate for special education services for students with special needs, and GLSEN Chicago, "working to create safe schools for high school students and teachers, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."

During the coming year, he has a handful of priorities he would like to see the school board begin to address.

Those priorities include: making sure that the district has a long-term growth plan to ensure that students have appropriate and adequate space to be successful learners; creating a clear vision of what achievement is that goes beyond test scores; to improve recruiting and retention of top tier teachers; and to consider the possibility of a merger with the local high school.

In addition, Rykhus said that Evanston is lucky to be a district that is still able to offer arts education and extracurricular activities for its students and he believes that these opportunities are vital in building life skills.

"They are critical," he said. "That is where you build community. That is where individuals really have a chance to pursue and deepen their expertise or knowledge in certain areas. It's complimentary because so much of what is focused on in class time is more academic in nature, but this helps you build those other essential life skills, in terms of organization and interpersonal skills and I think its critical."

While he is not fully aware of how the district is handling the rising issue of bullies and bullying, he does think that it is a life skills issue the district is taking a proactive stance against. He mentioned that his typically quiet son attended a production by a theater group on bullying and came home exuberant about what he had seen and learned that day. He would like to see more of this type of education in the classroom.

His new school-board position will keep him busy this year, but Rykhus looks forward to continuing to spend his free time with his family. He said his perfect Saturday would be spent with his husband and son, first watching his son play sports, then spending time at the lake and finally, enjoying a dinner out.

He also enjoys spending his free time reading political blogs, playing tennis or catching a college football or basketball game and meeting up with friends.

Rykhus is glad to be a member of the Evanston community. He knows that in some communities an openly gay man could not win an election for school board and he is proud to be part of a community where sexuality is a non-issue.

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