When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was testifying at his confirmation hearing in 2009, he discussed his mother’s longtime work as the operator of an after-school children’s tutoring program serving mostly poor, African-American students on the South Side of Chicago.
“What compelled my mother to take her three young children into this community every single day?” the nominee said of Sue Duncan, who “did this work every single day simply because this work was so important. Because this work was bigger than all of us.”
A new documentary looks at the half-century of work of Duncan’s mother with the Sue Duncan Children’s Center, a non-profit program that operates entirely on donations, with no federal or state funding.
“Remember Me Sue,” by director Melina Kolb, airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. Central time on public television station WTTW in Chicago. Those outside the Chicago area will have to look for it at film festivals or for it to eventually show up on the Web.
Sue Duncan is in her 70s now, and she retired from the children’s center in 2011. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, the film says.
Mrs. Duncan started the children’s center in 1961, and it moved around a bit, but now resides in a public elementary in the Oakland neighborhood, not far from the Hyde Park neighborhood surrounding the University of Chicago where Arne Duncan and his brother and sister were brought up.
The brother, Owen Duncan, now runs the children’s center, which includes a new campus that opened last fall in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
Mrs. Duncan appears frequently in the hourlong film, but much of the footage of her is from another production, from 2004. We see her welcoming children, from pre-K age through high school, into the center for tutoring and other activities. (There is more recent footage of her, too, but the signs of her disease are there.)
We meet many of her students, including those now in young adulthood, who say she could sometimes be mean and had lots of rules.
“Sue’s Rules,” says one student, included keeping shirts tucked in and shoes tied, not scratching one’s head, and looking people in the eye.
From the footage we see, Mrs. Duncan clearly embraces the challenge of helping the education of young students from tough city neighborhoods. She has sometimes had to confront gang members or people with weapons in and around her center, we learn.
“We are all born with potential,” she says in the film. Asked whether she ever had students she found she couldn’t help, she laments those who drop out or fall into the influence of gangs.
“If any child wants to learn to read or write, I haven’t had a child I couldn’t teach,” Mrs. Duncan says.
There are many touching recollections from her former students, including one who had emigrated to Chicago from Ghana at a young age and ended up in Mrs. Duncan’s center.
“She looked at me and she saw more potential in me than I saw in myself,” says the young woman.
There are no doubt countless other dedicated educators like Mrs. Duncan out there whose sons are not the U.S. secretary of education. Because of the connection, we get to see this major influence on Secretary Duncan’s life and a mother and educator who influenced many more.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.