Sue Duncan is one of the most extraordinary and admirable figures in the history of Chicago education. The groundbreaking work she spearheaded in one of the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods is legendary. She donated her time and personal resources for 50 years and singlehandedly transformed the lives of thousands of children, becoming a revered mainstay and mother figure to multiple generations of families. Her modest, yet unrelenting approach is centered in pure love and an unwavering commitment to doing whatever it takes to help every child reach their full potential.
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in 1961 when after school programs were almost unheard of, Sue Duncan was a 26 year-old white teacher who opened a children’s center for inner-city black youth in the racially divided south side of Chicago. Her selflessness and genuine desire to be a positive influence began when she was asked to teach Sunday school at a local church and learned her students could not read. She began meeting with them regularly and taught them to not only read, but to comprehend and interpret literature. The program quickly blossomed into a quiet, yet monumental movement of achievement against all odds.
Sue was undeterred by any barriers that would prevent her from teaching the children she knew needed her. With her own three children in tow, she would literally drive through the neighborhood in her blue station wagon, picking up kids block-by-block to take them to the Center she had created by utilizing space at local churches and area schools. She bypassed gang members and fearlessly established her program in a high-crime neighborhood where her presence was not always welcomed. But once the people of the community witnessed her indiscriminate love for children and the magical transformation of the students she taught, even known gang members began to attend and were transformed by her unconditional love and uncompromising commitment to excellence. Parents made the program a requirement for their children, and students at nearby University of Chicago began to serve as volunteer tutors along with some of the parents in the neighborhood.
Over the next five decades, Sue taught thousands of children at what officially became the Sue Duncan Children’s Center and established lasting personal relationships with her students and their families. The phrase “Going to Sue” became a common reference in the neighborhood for children attending her program. Although the Center moved to several locations throughout the community over the years, she maintained a consistent presence and everyone knew they could rely on Sue to be there.
Sue’s educational model is based on the belief that, with nurturing, fulfillment of their basic needs and consistency, all children can and will succeed. Her motto is to support each child based on their individual circumstances and to “meet them where they are” academically, emotionally, socially and geographically. This approach has been crucial to the Center’s ability to gain trust and respect in communities that may not be receptive to other programs. Her curriculum is designed to consider the personal needs of every child by going beyond basic academic tutoring. The program engenders intellectual curiosity, a love of learning and encourages healthy lifestyles by fulfilling children’s artistic, recreational and nutritional needs. Based on this commitment to supporting the “whole child,” Sue established a culture that emulates the village it takes to raise a child and where everyone has a role to play in helping others succeed, including the children themselves. Older students mentor the younger by reading with them and providing tutoring for difficult subjects. This benefits both children; the younger receives individualized attention from a positive role model they can look up to, and the elder builds self-esteem and sense of responsibility as well as teaching and leadership skills.
Sue taught enthusiastically and intensely until her 2011 retirement with the only expectation for accolades being the success of her students. Her many protégés over the years fervently credit her for being the turning point in their lives and are now making positive contributions to society as engineers, doctors, lawyers, educators, philanthropists, police officers, fire fighters, servicemen and women, well-known athletes, actors, and musicians, community leaders and business owners. Many of them return to the Center to donate their time and resources.
Now under the leadership of her youngest son Owen, the Sue Duncan Children’s Center continues to thrive and remains grounded in the grassroots, hands-on approach established by its founder. In response to the growing demand for its services in recent years, the Center opened an additional campus on the south side in 2012 for the first time in its history to serve the Woodlawn community, and plans are underway for a third campus in Englewood. Its original campus location remains in the Oakland area. Each site remains consistent with the Center’s historically high standard for excellence and to this day, there are few, if any, non-religious programs in the country that operate on such a personal level with each child, and share the level of results using minimal resources. 100% of attendees show measurable progress with their grades, test scores, behavior, self-esteem, and planning for the future.
Sue Duncan’s educational background includes a B.A. in English from Smith College in 1955 and an M.A. in English from University of Wisconsin in 1957. Originally from Winchester, Massachusetts, she became a resident of Chicago in 1959. Sue taught high school English for two years in Cleveland, and one year at City Colleges of Chicago before putting her heart and soul into running the children’s center. Her three children all share her passion for keeping educational resources at the forefront of social advancement. Her eldest son Arne currently serves as the U.S. Secretary of Education; her daughter Sarah is co-director of the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago; and her youngest son Owen is her successor at the Sue Duncan Children’s Center. Sue was married to the late Dr. Starkey Duncan, Jr., professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.
Even in her retirement, and despite some memory loss, Sue can be found at the Center passing out gifts to children during the holidays. She still does not hesitate to make each moment a teachable one, reminding each child of the importance of giving. Now approaching her 80th birthday, using every opportunity to educate a child in her presence continues to be her life’s work and legacy. When asked about the challenges and rewards of a life-time of educating children, Sue responded:
“I never met a child I couldn’t teach.”