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How to fix America's worst schools

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"It hasn't been done in this kind of thoughtful, comprehensive way in the past," says Mr. Duncan. "It's some of the hardest, most difficult work there is, but it's absolutely critical that we engage in this work. If we don't, we perpetuate failures."

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Phillips Academy occupies an impressive building, with an ornate facade and marble columns, in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. It also has a substantial pedigree. Named after abolitionist Wendell Phillips, it became the first predominantly black high school in Chicago, in the 1920s, and boasts an alumni roster of notable African-Americans: among them, singers Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, as well as poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

It once produced a skilled group of basketball players who formed the nucleus of what would later become the Harlem Globetrotters.

But for the past few decades, Phillips Academy has been more known in Chicago for something else: failure. Last year, the school was the second-worst performing high school in Illinois. Less than 5 percent of its students met state academic standards. It had an 49 percent dropout rate. Fights regularly broke out after school in the neighborhood, and parents did whatever they could to keep their children out of Phillips Academy.

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