Hard work, high expectations common at 'Sue'

The Sue Duncan Children's Center is where United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got his first teaching job. It is also the place where his mother set out to make a difference more than 50 years ago.
October 18, 2013 3:35:40 PM PDT
When students or staff members at a South Side community center refer to "Sue," they are referring as much to a place as they are to a remarkable person.

The Sue Duncan Children's Center is where United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got his first teaching job. It is also the place where his mother set out to make a difference more than 50 years ago.

"I have a twin brother and he kind of needed help in math and reading and his teacher introduced us to Sue," said 15-year-old Travon Minnis.

Hard work and high expectations are common at the Sue Duncan Children's Center. Housed in the Jackie Robinson Elementary School on the South Side, students from more than twenty-area schools file in daily looking for free homework help.

"All the tutors here they know what they're doing," said 11-year-old Sabrina Brookins. "If they know I need help they can explain it to me in a way that I could understand it.

Students often find much more.

"I used to be an angry child and I would get in trouble most of the time while I was here," Travon said. "They worked with me and I realized all the stuff they had been doing for me."

In 1961, Sue Duncan started the center after a local pastor asked her to teach bible study to some neighborhood children.

"He gave her six girls aged around 10, I think, and a Bible," said Owen Duncan. "She said, 'Great, we'll take turns reading the Bible and then we'll talk about what we read and started passing the Bible around,' and it turned out none of them were literate. So, she said, 'Ok the Bible comes later. Let's start with literacy.'"

Her youngest son Owen Duncan now runs the center as his mother's health has declined. He says he learned important lessons watching his mother's enduring commitment to the underserved.

"I grew up going to private school and playing with the sons and daughters of U of C professors and wealthy businessmen and then after school I would go across 47th Street and hang out with people who were not being given education at all. At a very early age you start asking yourself why?" Owen Duncan said.

Arne Duncan may have perfected his jump shot while growing up at "sue." He's pictured with other alums, including the late Green Mile actor Michael Clark Duncan. But Owen Duncan says he is sure this is where the former Chicago Public Schools chief learned the value of high-quality education and equal opportunity.

"One of the stories I remember from his infancy was when they had the Martin Luther King riots," he said. "The South and West Sides were going up in flames. Richard J. Daley issued his shoot to kill order against looters. There was a tank parked in front of the bank off of 53rd Street. I've seen a picture of that. My mom took Arne in her arms, her little baby son and walked across the dividing line of 47th Street and ran her center, every day before and every day after."

Next Thursday, Arne Duncan will be back home in Chicago serving as the guest speaker at a fundraiser benefiting "Sue."

The Sue Duncan Children's Center receives no federal or state funding and is entirely supported through personal donations.

Sue Duncan Children's Center