arne duncan

Arne Duncan 

At a coffee chat with the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, former United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about his work in Chicago with underprivileged youth and community violence prevention programs.

Duncan, who grew up in Hyde Park and moved back a few years ago, is currently a managing partner at Emerson Collective, a self-described "social change organization" founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs' widow. (The organization, which also holds a majority stake in The Atlantic, has been in the news this week after cutting ties with California Sunday Magazine, causing the publication to suspend its online and print editions and lay off 11 staffers.)

In 2016, Duncan also co-founded Chicago Create Real Economic Destiny, an organization dedicated to anti-gun violence. On Tuesday, Duncan described the five “pillars” of the organization: street outreach, life coaching, the clinical team, the education team, and the jobs team.

He mentioned his personal connection to the organization’s mission, noting that he had lost friends to gun violence as he grew up on the South and West sides of Chicago.

“The level of fear and trauma that kids are living with today on the South and West sides is unacceptable,” he said. “We have to start to meet kids individually where they are.”

Duncan also recalled a situation from his time as CEO of Chicago Public Schools while he was answering a question on what he thought the role of policing was in schools. One year, a principal in North Lawndale had asked for nine social workers instead of the nine security guards normally allocated to the school.

“Violence went down precipitously,” said Duncan. And yet, he admitted that he had perpetuated policing in schools during his tenure as CEO. “We spent a hundred million dollars on security … I hated to do that, but it was something I felt we had to do.”

Scaling, he said, is one of the main problems in the approach to making public schools successful, saying, “For all the huge problems we have in education, I guarantee that they are being solved somewhere everyday.”

What's important, he suggested, is finding ways to scale these small success stories up to larger models in bigger districts. He pointed out that “systemic racism has been baked into education.”

Duncan believes that the solution is to think past traditional models of schooling: “The question for me is do we have the courage to reimagine, reinvent and not just revert to what we had before.”

Among his suggestions were a Pre-K through fourteen or sixteen system, noting that “K-12 is woefully insufficient.” He also asserted that education should not stop at graduation and that learning must be a process open to people of all ages. “We all have to keep learning the rest of our lives. There (have) to be easy onramps to retrain and retool.”

Duncan also commented on the state of education in the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The virus, he said, has “(ripped) the bandaid (off) on massive inequities.” With the shift to online school, he says that technology will be key in the effort to revamp education, and that those resources should be made available to everyone through a combined effort between private and public partnerships and the Federal Communications Commission. “Technology has to be as ubiquitous as running water.”

“The fact that we haven’t had a national response to a national crisis is devastating," he continued. “If we want schools to be open, we have to beat down this virus in our communities.”

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