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Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan may know Barack Obama from the basketball court, but it's his Chicago school reform record that's now front and center.

ARNE DUNCAN'S TENURE as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools has been noted for collecting massive amounts of data on display at the schools website. However, one set of statistics in particular gives him pause: the 35 students who were killed during the 2007-08 school year. Duncan, the newly named Secretary of Education and an advisor to President-elect Obama on education issues, is so troubled by this figure that in October he declined to accept an award from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, admitting as he stood at the podium, "I don't feel I've earned it."

The 44-year-old Harvard graduate was noticeably more upbeat today as he stood in the library of Dusable High School on Chicago's South Side to announce $50,000 in grants to high school students for planning a Peace Summit and other programs promoting nonviolence in the schools. It was the day after the big press conference with Obama, but Duncan was still in his Chicago-schools role. A council of student leaders rather than administrators will decide who gets Peace Summit nonviolence funding,  Duncan said with obvious pleasure.

"I've always said that youth has much to teach us," he told the gathering, noting how one high school staged a "letting go" ceremony  in which students wrote their grievances on a piece of paper, tied it to a balloon and released it into the air. "I'm absolutely convinced our young people have the answers," said Duncan, a former basketball player who at 6'5" towered above the students who shared the dais with him.

"Arne Duncan always puts students first—not teachers, not principals, not bureaucrats," declared Mayor Richard J. Daley earlier in the program. Daley might have been thinking of the tumult that accompanied the transformation of Dusable from underperforming high school into three specialized charter schools in 2006. Dusable was once known as the country's poorest high school, drawing its enrollment from the Robert Taylor Homes, a notoriously violent high-rise housing project that was demolished in 2007. As such, it was the perfect laboratory for implementing Renaissance 2010, an initiative announced in 2004 for closing failing schools and replacing them with high-performing charter schools over the next six years.

Parents were upset that the turn-arounds might mean a decreased role for them on local school counsels and that construction delays meant that students were temporarily diverted to other schools. The Chicago Teachers Union took issue with removing teachers from underperforming schools but was pleased with Duncan's policy of performance-based pay increases. Duncan's relationship with Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart "was not exactly a lovefest," acknowledges CTU Press Secretary Rosemaria Genova, adding that they "have had a working relationship that Stewart looks forward to continuing."

No one doubts that Obama's theme of change will be carried out in Duncan's Department of Education.  A major task will be reformulating No Child Left Behind, which Duncan, who became CEO of Chicago's schools in 2001, views as a failure. Duncan, who says he hasn't started working on his new job yet, declined to give details of his vision for the future but promised he will be sharing them over the next three weeks. "Right now I want to keep the focus on violence," he said, sticking to the point of this press conference.

Chicago-based Stephanie B. Goldberg often reports on social and legal issues for national publications.

 Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle. 

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