Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will help dropouts in violence-plagued Chicago find jobs

Since Arne Duncan left his job as U.S. secretary of Education in December, a problem has been nagging him: the high numbers of kids dropping out of school, joining gangs and getting killed in his city, Chicago.

So he’s taken on a new job, he said Thursday, that will help him find opportunities for those kids.

As managing partner at the Emerson Collective, Duncan will be looking for ways to help “disconnected youth,” ages 17 to 24, who aren’t in school and don’t have jobs. Many have criminal records and haven’t graduated from high school.

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According to a study from the Social Science Research Council, one in seven young people in America’s largest metropolitan areas fall into that category. Duncan, whose mother ran an after-school program for similar children decades ago in Chicago, says he wants to examine the factors that cause them to be disconnected and to help them get back on track.

“On the one hand, it felt great to come home to Chicago,” Duncan said. “On the other hand, it’s a really, really hard time here in the city. ... I just couldn’t come home and watch this, stay on the sidelines.”

During Duncan’s tenure, the nation witnessed multiple school shootings, events that often left the Obama Cabinet member teary-eyed. In his final speech as secretary, Duncan noted that during his first six years in office, at least 1,600 youths were killed by gun violence. The problem is particularly pronounced in Chicago, where violent crime is wounding and killing record numbers of young African Americans. “I’m trying to work to create real jobs in the legal economy,” he said.  

The Emerson Collective is an education group based in Palo Alto, and funded and led by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. Also prominent in the organization is managing director for education Russlynn Ali, who led the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under Duncan. The group pays for initiatives around school and immigration reform.

Duncan said he hopes to open a Chicago office for Emerson and said he is hiring.

He wants to create training programs that lead to jobs and help deal with socio-emotional issues, he said. “Many of these young men have been through horrific trauma.”

Duncan realizes, he said, that to lure away potential gang members, he needs to provide them with an alternative source of revenue. “If kids have hope, they don’t pick up guns,” he said.

He said he will raise money to start a venture fund that can support trainees who want to create their own businesses. 

Among his biggest challenges: finding employers willing to take on young people with no high school diplomas and criminal records.

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As secretary of Education, Duncan had an outsized influence on education policy as Congress was gridlocked around a major education law, the No Child Left Behind Act. He used Recession-era stimulus money to incentivize states to take on his preferred reforms, such as encouraging the growth of charter schools and grading teachers somewhat in accordance with their students’ test scores. Many states, though not California, followed along.

But along the way, Duncan faced the ire of national teachers unions more than once.

Before he retired, Congress passed a No Child Left Behind replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act. Since Duncan has stepped down, he has adjusted to civilian life by creating his own Twitter account and joining a Knight Foundation commission charged with investigating how college athletes can get sufficient time for their schoolwork. 

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at joy.resmovits@latimes.com

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