Mayor Richard M. Daley named Arne Duncan Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools on June 26, three weeks after former CEO Paul Vallas stepped down from the post. Reportedly, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey was first offered the job, but declined it.

Duncan, 36, joined the Chicago Public Schools in 1998 and became deputy chief of staff to Vallas. A Harvard graduate and former professional basketball player, he founded the Ariel Education Initiative, which adopted a sixth grade class at the now defunct Shakespeare School. (See Catalyst, February 2001.)

Duncan’s family, many of whom joined him on the dais at the announcement, has strong roots in education. His father, Starkey, is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and his mother, Sue, founded the Children’s Center in North Kenwood/Oakland. Sue credits her son’s experiences as a tutor at the center with giving him a real-world perspective on education in Chicago. “He’s seen my children die and get shot, he’s seen them flourish,” she says.

Other family members have direct connections within CPS. His sister, Sarah, is a board member of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School; his brother-in-law, Tom McDougal, is a math teacher at Best Practice High School. “When we go out to dinner, it’s usually with about ten other teachers, so it’s hard for me to get away from this,” Duncan said in response to a question about fixing Chicago’s ailing high schools.

But some observers wonder if his youth and inexperience will hurt his ability to run the system. “I’m aging rapidly,” he jokes. Though Duncan dismisses such concerns, he also stresses he’s willing to learn from elders and build a team. “I see this as simply an extraordinary opportunity, not just for me by myself. We’re going to build the strongest team you’ve ever seen in Chicago.”

“Although quite young comparatively, he seems to be ready to move into the job and be good at it,” says Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Jackie Gallagher. “He appears to care deeply about schools and is willing to do his thing” behind the scenes, she says.

And Duncan isn’t alone in facing a steep learning curve, Gallagher notes. Duncan, new Board of Education president Michael Scott and CTU president Deborah Lynch-Walsh are “all new kids on the block,” she says.

Sue Duncan points to her son’s style on the court as a measure of how he’ll lead. “I’ve played basketball with him for many years,” she says. “He’s a team player. He can lead the floor. He passes beautifully, dazzling passes. Arne is not greedy, he’s generous. He’s thoughtful.”

Other members of the schools team remain unchosen. No announcement was made regarding the Chief Education Officer, but principals Barbara Eason-Watkins of McCosh Elementary and Joan Crisler of Dixon Elementary are rumored to be on the short list for the job.

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