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Education Secretary Arne Duncan's legacy as Chicago schools chief questioned

Duncan's record is of more than historical interest. He wields considerable power through the combination of his Chicago connections, shared with President Obama, and his oversight of billions of dollars in reform funding. The Education Department is dangling an unprecedented $3.5 billion in grants for school systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

Huge challenges

With 418,000 students in 675 schools, Chicago faces challenges on a scale exceeded only in Los Angeles and New York. Eighty-five percent of students come from poor families, and 12 percent have limited English skills.

Tours in a handful of Chicago schools this month found educators pushing against formidable obstacles to establish a climate of learning. For some, simply asserting control over a campus represents a big victory.

In the North Lawndale neighborhood west of downtown, dotted by decaying rowhouses and apartments, Johnson Elementary School was given a new staff this year and renamed the Johnson School of Excellence. Duncan, in one of his last actions before leaving Chicago, proposed the restart in January because of the school's perennially low test scores. The nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which pairs master's degree candidates with teaching mentors in a residency program, runs the school and 13 others under contract. Johnson serves 300 students from pre-K through grade 8.

In the last school year, officials said, police were called to the campus nearly every day to deal with angry parents or disruptive students.

"It was a war scene," said Jennifer Earthley, mother of a fourth-grader and a fan of the new regime. "The administrators were afraid of the children. The children did what they wanted to do. We have been on the low end for a long time. All we have been looking for is a passionate group of people who care."

Now, attendance is up and fights are down. Students are drilled on respect, manners and lining up in the halls. In one fourth-grade classroom, teacher Katelyn Funderburk counted "5-4-3-2-1" after asking students to pull out their textbooks. "Steven Earthley got it opened fast and folded his hands," she said. "Thank you."

Hitting the reset button

At William R. Harper High School in West Englewood, loudspeakers blared the theme to "Beverly Hills Cop" one afternoon and students swirled in the hallways as the principal shooed stragglers to class. "Let's go! Let's go!" Kenyatta Stansberry called out. "Y'all are going to be late. Let's go, baby! You need to run!"

The 700-student school, in an area blighted with crime and boarded-up houses, had fallen on hard times when Stansberry took over in 2007. She said she spent much of her first year dashing to altercations -- the intercom alert "10-10 on 2," for example, would mean a fight on the second floor -- and extracting the campus from the Crash Town gang's grip.

Then Duncan hit the reset button (another purge a decade earlier had failed to yield much improvement). Stansberry stayed, although most of the staff was let go. She was given extra resources, including three deans to help manage students, money for gifts and incentives, and a reading catch-up program. Misconduct fell, attendance rose and test scores edged up a bit. More ninth-graders were rated on track to receive a diploma.

Neighborhood troubles remain a deep concern. Stansberry said four of her students died violently off campus in the last school year. Such killings became a national issue this fall after a student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death near Christian Fenger Academy High School on the city's South Side. Duncan returned to Chicago in October with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to pledge a campaign against youth violence.

As if in solidarity with that goal, posters of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flank the whiteboard in English teacher Fadia Afaneh's room at Harper. She high-fived her ninth-graders as they placed commas correctly in sentences, transforming street lingo into standard English. Much of what she teaches is remedial, Afaneh said, but she is determined to help students advance. First, she teaches them to write a complete sentence. Then, a paragraph.

"Basically, all kids deserve an excellent education," she said, "and that doesn't always happen in this country. I know."

Read Answer Sheet blogger Valerie Strauss on why Arne Duncan's record from Chicago matters.

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