Like many leaders, Arne Duncan has looked in his own backyard for talent and for ways to increase opportunities for the kinds of children he tutored and played with as a child.

Geographically, the locus is Hyde Park, the neighborhood where Duncan grew up, and specifically, the University of Chicago, where his father teaches and he attended its Laboratory Schools. Most of CPS’s new brain trust have roots in that community or connections to the university.

Shortly before she was named chief education officer, Barbara Eason-Watkins was recruited by the university’s Center for School Improvement to be a part-time director for its professional development schools. Likewise, Al Bertani, CPS chief officer of professional development, was once a senior research associate there. Social work professor Melissa Roderick had the ear of Paul Vallas, but Duncan brought her on board. John Easton of the university-affiliated Consortium for Chicago School Research signed on for a year as Duncan’s research and evaluation director.

Last month, Lucinda Lee Katz, the former director of the Laboratory Schools, was appointed to oversee early childhood education, and newcomer David Vitale, a Hyde Park resident, was elevated to chief officer of administration.

At the same time, U. of C. officials have been seeking ways to forge closer ties with the city’s schools and to correct its poor record at integrating its student body.

Last year The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education rated the U. of C. dead last among 26 elite universities in terms of attracting, enrolling and graduating African-American students, as well as hiring black professors. The publication lauded the university for “good progress” in increasing its percentage of black faculty, but said, “…in every other category of our survey, the university is among the worst performers.”

Only 4 percent of graduate and undergraduate enrollment at the U. of C. is black, according to the journal, despite being located in a city that is heavily black in population. Other minority groups are better represented: U. of C. enrollment is 6 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Asian.

In recent years, Duncan came to know Hank Webber, U. of C. vice president for government and community affairs. “Arne and I had a number of conversations,” says Webber, “and once he moved over to work with Paul [Vallas], we talked about what we could do together.”

During the same period, Jim Crown, president of Henry Crown and Co. and vice chairman of the U. of C. board of trustees, was looking to make a capital campaign gift in the name of his wealthy and civic-minded family. “But we wanted our gift to be in an area where we felt the university should be doing better.” Both Webber and Jim Crown say they were well aware of the journal’s findings.

In March, Duncan, U. of C. officials, and the Crown family announced a new program to award five full-tuition scholarships each year to high-performing CPS graduates. The scholarships, which are not race-based, are renewable each year, so that after four years, 20 CPS alums will be traveling through the undergraduate college. This comes over and above a long-standing commitment by the U. of C. to annually guarantee four-year tuition for one worthy graduate of nearby Kenwood Academy. (The university has named its first five full-scholarship recipients. The cohort is composed of one black, one white and three Hispanic students.)

The university also unveiled another program in which 9th graders will be enlisted to take summer courses and receive college counseling. “The summer courses won’t be basic algebra and geometry, but looking at subjects in new ways,” promises Duel Richardson, the administrator overseeing the scholars program.

Richardson says the program is geared to cultivate high school scholars to apply to the university. The initial cohort are a golden mix. The 81 youngsters chosen (from among more than 900 applicants) represent 33 high schools. Some 43 percent are among the top 10 students in their class academically. They are 45 percent African American, 25 percent white and 15 percent each Asian and Hispanic.

The price tag for the scholarship and the scholars programs is $4 million over the first five years, according to Webber. The Crowns, through their family foundation, contributed a “substantial” portion, he notes. Tuition and fees cost $28,689 a year.

“This is huge,” says Duncan of the U. of C. programs. “I worked with kids from the inner city who had the ability to go to college, but found financial obstacles to overcome. And here now kids can aspire to the U. of C.”

The CEO downplays any perception that he has favored the U. of C. “I’ve tried to get smart people from all over to come downtown and assist here,” he says, pointing to academicians from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago who have also been added as either staff or advisers.

On campus, U. of C. officials delight in their relationship with Duncan. “We had ties with the schools before, under Paul Vallas,” says Webber, “but they’ve strengthened with Arne, no question.”

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