Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

Meet the teacher

New Secretary of Education Arne Duncan left a legacy of innovation, choice and accountability in Chicago. But can those pragmatic values help him shepherd Washington through the ideological muddle surrounding the nation's school systems?

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

CHICAGO-Inside the posh teacher's lounge of the Ariel Community Academy on Chicago's South Side, the dysfunction of a troubled urban school system seems far removed. Here the aesthetic screams excellence and order, what with stylish furniture, recessed lighting, and stainless steel appliances.

But a news report flickering across a large flat-screen TV invades that serenity with a brutal reality: "For the 28th time this school year, classmates are remembering a Chicago Public Schools student who was killed by violence."

A teacher and a facilities manager watch the broadcast in quiet disbelief, both exhaling sighs of sadness. If only the peace-filled culture at Ariel could extend influence beyond its 440 students to the more than 400,000 K-12 students who populate the city's 655 public schools. If only those in power could export broadly the sanity and discipline of this little institution.

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For one man, that has always been the dream. Arne Duncan helped found Ariel and build it into one of the top-ranking elementary schools in Chicago. When he assumed the role of Chicago Public Schools CEO in 2001, he sought to advance the same values that made Ariel great-community involvement, a merit-based culture, and fearless innovation.

Now Duncan, 44, stands in position to spread his vision nationwide. As President Barack Obama's newly appointed Secretary of Education, he holds sway over federal programs and standards that have long yielded similar dysfunction to that in his home town. What lies ahead for America's education system? The answer lies behind in the city and story that made Arne Duncan.

In an upstairs classroom at Jackie Robinson Elementary--just a five minute walk from Ariel-the volume on a recent Monday afternoon is surprisingly low given the room's occupants. Dozens of elementary-aged youth cram into a space cluttered with books, art, and various other educational tools. The school day is over, but learning and discipline aren't in this small tutoring program.

Sitting in the middle of it all is Duncan's mother, Sue Duncan. Her arms wrapped tightly around a young girl in need of comfort, the 74-year-old grandmother alternates between barking instructions to kids throughout the room and singing sweet lullabies to the one in her lap. Students coming in the door scramble to tuck in shirts and stand up straight. "Hi Sue," they all say. "Nose in your homework," she answers.

Such is life at the nonprofit Sue Duncan Children's Center, an after-school program for troubled urban youth that Duncan founded in 1961. She raised her three children here alongside many others with far less interested or involved parents. After 48 years, she still knows every child's back story, and her eyes well with tears as she tells them.

This is the context from which Duncan's education philosophy flows. It was here that he came to believe every child could succeed and here that he learned the unique challenges inner-city educators face. His mother was not always welcome in Chicago's predominately African-American neighborhoods. Racial tensions surged during the 1960s and '70s, bringing death threats and even a firebombing of the church where the children's center once operated.

Nevertheless, Duncan and his siblings remained heavily involved at the center. He worked there every day after school growing up and took a year off between his junior and senior years at Harvard to come home and help run the program full-time.

Duncan recalled the hardships and lessons of those years during his Senate confirmation hearing: "Our lives were threatened. My mother's life was threatened. I remember leaving work one night and a guy coming by and saying if we came back the next day we'd be killed. And so we had an interesting conversation that night at home at dinner. Our dinnertime conversations may be a little bit different than other families. And we tried to figure out what to do and really decided that you can't run."

The Duncans stood their ground and helped develop and launch an impressive alumni list that includes Oscar-nominated actor Michael Clarke Duncan and top IBM engineer Kerrie Holley, who was named one of the 50 most important blacks in research science in 2004.

Such successes convinced Duncan of the value of private initiative to solve social ills. After graduation from college and a short run as a professional basketball player overseas, he returned to Chicago and directed the Ariel Education Initiative, adopting an entire class of urban youth, shepherding them through graduation, and then supplying their college tuition. Drawing from the methodology of his mother, Duncan took a highly hands-on approach, dropping in at the home of any struggling kids to walk them through tough seasons of life.

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