Center Featured in The New Yorker

Arne Duncan in the New Yorker

Image from The New Yorker website

The Children’s Center was featured in the latest edition of The New Yorker in an article profiling current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Carlo Rotella’s story recounts Arne’s history at the Center and how it shaped his pursuits in education.

Rotella describes Arne’s time growing up in Hyde Park, playing basketball with neighborhood boys and attending the Center after his days at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. At the Center, Arne was able to experience a different side of growing up on the South Side. “It’s been a huge part of my motivation, the difference between the day”–at the Lab School–“and then the evening with kids who had something that wasn’t even close,” he said in the story.

Other memories Arne describes in the article are when he tried tutoring a B student for the A.C.T. who turned out to be illiterate, and when he found out some of his friends from growing up at the Center had died.

“There’s a photo of our group, the inner circle from my mom’s program,” taken back in the late nineteen-seventies, he said, “and some of those guys are dead. Growing up down there, and having friends from the program and from the streets die when I was twelve, thirteen–that scarred me. It was hard to comprehend. As much as the success stories have shaped me and given me hope, those deaths might be an even bigger motivator. The guys who got killed were the guys who didn’t finish high school. It was literally the dividing line between you live or you die. Nobody who went to college died young.”

Rotella writes that President Obama has allotted Arne more than seventy billion dollars in economic stimulus funds to give to states, more than any other Secretary of Education has ever had, giving him “the potential to be a uniquely influential Secretary of Education.” From Arne’s experience at the Center, he takes away these lessons from the South Side:

“It shows that the states are so high […] Education predicts disparities in life chances, outcomes, life income, and the disparity has never been starker. I do absolutely see–the dividing line in our society is around educational opportunity, more than around race, even though the two are obviously related. Educational opportunity increasingly divides the haves and have-nots, who’s contributing to society and who’s a weight on society.”

Rotella also interviewed Sue Duncan and Kerrie Holley, a former Center alum and current I.B.M. Fellow. Kerrie, who grew up at the Center, describes the problems they had with gangs.

Speaking of Kenwood, Holley said, “It’s better now, but I remember physically having to watch my back. It was risky, dirty, unsafe. And you had to know what time of day it was. You had the Disciples, the Blackstone Rangers.” The Blackstone Rangers once firebombed a church whose basement Sue Duncan’s program occupied. “It was face to face,” Holley said. “She’d say, ‘You can’t come in here. You gotta leave.’ But the gangs respected it. She’s here. She’s doing what she’s doing. She won’t back down.”

Sue started the Center after teaching a Bible-study class at a black church in Kenwood and discovering none of the children could read. She raised her three children at the Center (Owen is currently Assistant Director) and became a familiar figure in the neighborhood driving her big blue van. Rotella writes, “Sue’s moved from one church basement to another growing larger and becoming more deeply involved in the lives of the children who attended.”

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