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Education secretary Arne Duncan: headmaster of US school reform

As students head back to school, educators nationwide are implementing controversial school reform wrought by Arne Duncan. Pushing competitive market approaches and armed with unprecedented funding and support from the president, he is possibly the most powerful education secretary ever.

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The Sue Duncan Children's Center remains a pillar of the neighborhood as well as grounding for the whole Duncan family. Started in church basements and now housed in an elementary school, its walls are crowded with books and photos of alumni, including actor Michael Clarke Duncan (no relation) and Kerrie Holley, now an IBM fellow.

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Sue Duncan, now in her 70s, still goes there daily. And Arne Duncan's brother, Owen, and his sister, Sarah, work in education. It's "the family business," jokes Owen, now the center's director.

As he grew up, Duncan had a razor-sharp view of inequality. During the school day, he had every opportunity imaginable at the elite Lab School, a private school affiliated with the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived. In the afternoon, he was at the center with his mom, learning with and tutoring kids from Kenwood.

"I grew up with folks in mom's school who were smarter than me, more talented, harder working, and just didn't have the opportunities [I had]," Arne Duncan says.

In a neighborhood where everything else pointed to Duncan's differences, basketball became a point of connection. And it was one of the few arenas where the scrawny white teen, who soared to the height of 6 ft., 5 in. much later, didn't have an advantage. But he began wandering Chicago's South Side and the west in search of games, crossing gang territory and playing near crack houses.

"If you want to get better, you have to find the best people to play with," Duncan says during a recent trip to Chicago to play in a charity basketball tournament. "It was pretty simple for me."

But running with this tough crowd was intense. He was exposed to kids who had even fewer opportunities than those he met through his mom's program. He was friends with gang members he only knew by nickname – kids who would scare most people. "Little Dan," for example, would warn Duncan to be on his way when his radar for violence suggested trouble coming. Two other boys Duncan was close to were killed.

"When you're a young kid, that scars you," Duncan says. "It's very difficult to make sense of. What I figured out over time was that [for] the kids who stayed in [my mom's] program – there were these remarkable success stories. And the folks who didn't, the folks who dropped out on the streets, a lot of them ended up dead."

His friends from there say his actions were extraordinary, and earned him respect in African-American neighborhoods – just the community chops he'd need years later as he tried to reform failing schools as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

"He was an ambassador, ahead of his time," says Raglin.

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The street smarts Duncan developed as a kid serve him well in the halls of power, say those who know him and like to illustrate his skills in basketball metaphors: He's humble enough to listen and collaborate on the assist, but he's got fierce instincts for when to drive to the basket.

Duncan's "cool, calm leadership style" first impressed Shaun Dono­van when Duncan was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team. Mr. Don­ovan, now Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, remembers a game when Duncan's play had students in the stands who'd never met before hugging in elation.

Duncan tends to pass rather than go for the glory himself, say friends. It's a humility that comes through off the court, whether he's reading to kids or attending a cabinet meeting, says Donovan, who plays with the secretary of Education and President Obama. He's heard both the president and Duncan credit the discipline and teamwork of the sport as a model for life and leadership – it teaches you, for one, that if you try to do something on your own, you'll fail.