Former high school rebel, now head of U.S. education system

john king with student

U.S. Education Secretary John King believes in the power of second chances. If he hadn't been given one, he says he wouldn't be where he is today.

Both of King's parents died before he was 13, and he became rebellious and angry. During his junior year at the elite Phillips Andover Academy boarding school, where he had previously landed a full scholarship, he was expelled for disciplinary issues.

"I was fortunate that I had teachers who were willing to give me a second chance," King said.

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Despite his behavioral issues, King excelled at school and eventually got accepted at Harvard University, where he studied government. And he didn't stop there. He went on to get a master's from Columbia, a law degree from Yale, and a doctorate in educational administrative practice from Columbia Teacher's College.

Now, as the head of the nation's education system, he's trying to give more kids a chance. One of his primary missions is to end the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects black and Latino students.

"Young people in juvenile justice facilities are not getting quality educational programs. They're not getting access to opportunity. There's no plans around their transition back to school," King said.

In July, the Department of Education launched its Second Chance Pell pilot program. Through it, $30 million in grants will be made available to nearly 12,000 incarcerated students for post-secondary education and training programs.

Related: Colleges pledge to give applicants with criminal records a fair shot

King has also worked closely with President Obama's My Brother's Keeper program, which seeks to address opportunity gaps faced by young men of color.

This is King's American Success Story.

How did you overcome the hurdles you faced when you were younger?

Amazing teachers. My mom passed away when I was in fourth grade. I had a teacher in fourth grade who was just phenomenal, Mr. Osterweil. This was at P.S. 276 in Canarsie (Brooklyn).

He made school so interesting. He was so vested in all of the students and made school a place where I could be a kid when outside of school I really couldn't.

john king dad 1978
King often took care of his father (in background), who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer's.

My father had undiagnosed Alzheimer's. From one night to the next, I didn't know what he was going to be like. He passed away when I was 12.

It was teachers that inspired me, invested in me, gave me a sense of hope.

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When I was living with my dad, I was paying the bills and doing my laundry and getting the groceries and trying to keep the house going. After my dad passed, I lived with my older brother.

I was angry, definitely as a teenager.

In boarding school, there were all these adults telling me what time to be here, there and all these rules. My reaction was, "I've been on my own, making all these decisions for myself. I'm not going to listen to your rules."

I went to Phillips Andover. It's where George Bush went to high school. As a kid from New York City, an African-American Latino kid from New York City, it was very unfamiliar. I kept getting in trouble.

john king hal and jean
King (right) with his aunt Jean and uncle Hal. King said his uncle helped him after he was expelled from Phillips Andover Academy.

When I got kicked out, my uncle said to me, "Look, neither you nor I can do anything about the things that have happened to you in your life. We can't change those things but you now are a young man and you've got to take responsibility for the rest of your life and how it turns out."

I was trying to figure out what the next phase of my life would look like and how to process that experience. It was a moment that was right for that conversation.

How did you recognize opportunities to get ahead?

I'm fortunate in that even when I was struggling with rules and adult society, I always loved academics.

When I applied to Harvard, I had to write an essay about getting kicked out of school. There's a requirement for colleges that if you've been expelled, you have to explain the context.

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I was worried. Ultimately, the colleges were willing to see the opportunity in me rather than to focus just on the mistakes that I'd made.

john king harvard graduation
King with his grandmother at his graduation from Harvard in 1995.

When I went to undergrad, I got very involved in public service, running after school and summer programs in the Mission Hill section of Boston in the public housing developments. I loved to create positive environments for kids like I had had at PS 276 at Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island.

I just loved helping kids be successful academically and get inspired about learning. That led me to decide to become a teacher.

What would you say to a person who has no idea what they want to do next?

Geoffrey Canada, who started the Harlem Children's Zone, says what you should do in life is at the intersection of what you are best at and what the world needs most. I like that framing.

I was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who helped me. As a society, we've got to do a much better job for our disconnected youth, helping them connect with mentors.

john king tutoring
King as an undergrad at Harvard, tutoring a child from the public housing developments in Boston.

When young people make mistakes, we've got to, yes, point out that those are mistakes and, yes, there need to be consequences, but then we've got to be focused on how do we give them a meaningful second chance and support them in getting their life going in a different direction.

In the end, we're better off if we help folks who have gotten off track get back on track.

What's the one thing you do every day that helps you achieve your goals?

I think of my parents. Both of my parents spent their careers as New York City public school educators. My father was a teacher and a principal. My mother was a teacher and guidance counselor.

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They both believed in kids and schools and the difference that schools could make in kids' lives.

john king family 2009
"We've got to make sure that we are giving students regardless of race or zip code or immigration status or the language they speak at home the opportunity to excel," said King, pictured here with his family.

Then I have my two girls, and they are a constant source of inspiration. Spending time with them keeps me grounded.

How do you define success? And do you think you have achieved it?

Success is trying to live one's life in a way that makes the lives of other people better.

Each day I try to make things better for kids. I'm not sure I think of success as a thing that you achieve so much as a thing you're always working towards.

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