Chicago loves its basketball, but that's not why former pro player Arne Duncan got his job.
Nor is the reason his age. Thirty-seven is old for an athlete, but when it comes to running the third-largest school system in the country, it seems young.
He is a bit shy of job experience, too. As the Chicago Tribune put it:
"In three years with Chicago Public Schools, Duncan never had a high enough post to merit his own secretary." "Nobody really knows who he is," says Ray Quintanilla, a Chicago Tribune education writer describing the city's reaction to the announcement of its new public schools' CEO in the summer of 2001. "It was a surprise to a lot of people."
And while Duncan is reputedly about an inch or so taller than his popular 6'4" predecessor, Paul Vallas, Chicago leaders are not aiming for stature measured in inches.
Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, wants educational stature. He is aiming for an urban success story, and for reasons that don't show up on a resume, he is banking on Duncan to deliver it.
Duncan admits he is an educational outsider, but that is what is so exciting for him.
"Frankly, the public schools were always the enemy," Duncan says. The Chicago native says that when he saw his chance to run the show, he knew it was an extraordinary opportunity. "The outsider was going to get a chance to change things from the inside," he says.
Daley says he picked Duncan for his ability to coalesce broad ranges of players toward common goals. But, there are much more intriguing characteristics, such as the man's lifetime dedication to Chicago's underprivileged children and the powerful support he engenders from other leaders.
He needs it. He has big shoes to fill.
Duncan and 52-year-old AT&T Broadband executive Michael W. Scott, the new school board president, are replacing the highly successful Batman-and-Robin team of CEO Vallas and board president Gery Chico. They led the public schools for six years, pulling it out of a heap of educational woes.
"They did a Herculean job," says Duncan, during an interview he squeezed in early on a Saturday night.
The system was in such bad shape-nine teacher strikes in 17 years, schools in housing court, and declining test scores-that the Illinois General Assembly handed Daley control of the school system. Daley eliminated the superintendency, moving to a business format for governance.
Quintanilla says this format is an indisputable success in Chicago, and other urban districts are following suit. Most recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state legislature to give him control of the schools, citing Chicago example as proof it would work well (see sidebar).
Vallas and Chico repaired major union problems, turned around test scores and made reform history by ending social promotion during their tenure.
"Vallas was loved by parents all over the city. ...If there was a shooting, Paul Vallas was there. If a boiler blew up, Vallas was there, too. It was very reassuring to parents," Quintanilla says.
While Duncan inherits this stability, Quintanilla predicts his job will be trickier than Vallas'.
"Two out of three [students] don't read at grade level in Chicago. There is work to be done," Quintanilla says. "He needs to come up with a signature reform. He needs to do something to jar the school system again because it is getting complacent. ...But there is a lot of risk. Years of improvement have meant a lot to the city."
Duncan, who makes $180,000, agrees that his task is to usher in a new tier of educational improvement. But he warns it won't be flashy, quick or rest on one reform.
"We want to do well, but test scores are not going to rocket. ...There are no magic bullets, and that is part of the problem with urban education," Duncan says.
"We have made reading our top priority. Under our reading program we have established a uniform instructional framework consisting of four major components: word knowledge, fluency, comprehension and writing," Scott says.
Since Duncan's appointment, the 435,470-student school system has mandated that all elementary students receive two hours of reading and writing each day. At the high school, double periods of reading and writing are required for those students not on grade level.
Carving out money for these programs with a relatively flat budget was tough. Chicago's operating budget increased just 2.6 percent this year, from $3.58 billion in 2002, to $3.67 billion in 2003. Duncan has allocated $6.5 million to establish mini-libraries in K-3 classrooms and has assigned reading specialists to work with the 140 lowest performing elementary schools. About 450 high school reading teachers will take courses to support the integration of reading in high schools and 1,200 additional teachers will receive specialized training in reading.
He has also reallocated funds to expand afterschool programming to accommodate 175,000 students, increasing participation by 50,000. He says he wants the schools open longer and to be more family friendly by offering GED classes and ESL programs for parents.
Duncan also is a strong supporter of public school choice and small schools. He says $18.2 million in grants, mostly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will create more autonomous schools within the existing neighborhood schools. These schools-within-schools will have intriguing hooks, like starting later in the day for those early-bird offending teenagers.
Duncan, who started his career in the public schools in 1998 as director of magnet schools and service learning, says currently the demand for the magnet schools is "overwhelming" and the neighborhood schools are the ugly stepsisters.
"It is like a tale of two cities," he says. He wants to concentrate on helping the neighborhood schools compete, especially by establishing magnet schools within those schools. He is also seeking to add charter schools in the city.
In 2002-03, the system of 596 schools will feature 35 elementary and 16 high school magnet schools. In addition there will be 202 elementary magnet programs within neighborhood schools, and 75 such programs at the high school level.
Duncan has even established, for the first time, an annual school report card system, to help the public and administration assess individual school performance. The report card, the first one was published in June, will provide general school performance statistics, like test scores, dropout rates and attendance.
Learning to Lead
Creating choice and finding new roads to take seems to be a Duncan specialty. Before joining the school system, Duncan ran the Ariel Education Initiative for Ariel Capital Management Inc., a Chicago company that manages billions in assets and is run by boyhood friend John Rogers.
Rogers, the CEO, says about 12 years ago he decided to form the education foundation.
Arne, about 25 then, was just back from playing professional basketball in Australia. Rogers asked him to head it up.
"I couldn't think of anyone better to run it than Arne," says Rogers, admitting that Duncan was young and inexperienced. "I just knew Arne was going to grow into an extraordinary leader."
Rogers says they played basketball together as youths, and he watched his friend play through stress fractures and broken noses.
He said his friend never shied from the tough inner-city courts, was an excellent team player and enhanced others' assets. He made tough decisions and did not seem enamored of the limelight.
"These strengths of character play out again and again," Rogers says.
At the foundation, Duncan, his sister, Sarah, and others adopted a class of 40 sixth-grade Chicago students in the I Have a Dream program. Rogers says Duncan personally tutored many of the students and was a surrogate father to some.
As the students were getting ready for college and the mentorship was coming to an end, Duncan and Rogers then decided it was time to initiate an elementary school called the Ariel Community Academy.
"He has an extraordinary passion for helping underprivileged kids," Rogers says. The executive knows because he has witnessed the Duncan family's profound commitment to the community.
"This is what he has been put on earth to do," Rogers says.
Riding the Roller Coaster
Duncan is a homegrown boy from the South Side. His father is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and his mother, a Quaker, is a teacher who has run for some 40 years an afterschool program in the North Kenwood/Oakland community.
From the time he was born until he left for Harvard, mother Sue Duncan says Arne played and worked with the underprivileged children who attended her program. He experienced the victories and the losses, and was taught by his mother how to deal with the roller coaster ride.
"You take one day at a time, one child at a time," she says.
The former high school English teacher says she opened the afterschool program in 1961 after she volunteered to teach Bible school at an inner-city church and realized her students could not read well.
Using family money, she established the Children's Center. She has never accepted a salary for her full-time work. The center now employs a couple of hundred tutors, mainly teenagers.
Arne saw gunfights, witnessed his drawers fill up with knives, weathered evictions and watched friends flounder, she says.
"It didn't seem fair to Arne," says his mother, because he also witnessed "the beautiful growth of academic skills." So Sue Duncan is not worried about her son being able to handle the job.
"My kids are athletes," she says proudly, noting she is as well, making it to national tennis competition in her youth. "He passes with dazzling skill. He uses the team. ...He knows how to delegate and has chosen an astute caring team."
"No one is smarter, no one is tougher, no one has more resolve," Rogers says. "People have underestimated him in the past, but he always ends up winning."
Amy D'Orio, email@example.com, is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn.