Three Questions For Kaleem Caire, the founder and CEO of One City Schools in Madison, Wisconsin. One City operates a tuition-based pre-school and a publicly-funded charter elementary school. His first effort to open a charter school was denied in 2011.
Richmond: Madison is a university town. It is highly educated and pretty solidly middle class. Why does it need One City?
Caire: Madison has been harboring an achievement gap, that they knew about, since they first learned about it in 1965. Back then, there was a 27-point difference between black and white students in reading. That was in a Master’s thesis written by a woman named Cora Bagley, whose work was cited in a report called, “The Negro in Madison.” It was reported on again in 1965 by Dr. Naomi Lede who was responsible for the National Urban League’s assessment of whether or not a chapter of the Urban League should be established in Madison.
But there wasn’t a push to do anything about it until more reports came out in the 1970s that said, not only do we have an achievement gap, we also had a large gap in high school completion rates where only 44% of African-American students graduated with their senior class.
Madison had a surge of African-Americans that came to the university in the 1970s and many were activists. These students began living and teaching in the community and they took on social and economic disparities along with the NAACP and the Urban League. But the activism would die down because the school district would throw some money at it and, out of graciousness, people would wait and see. And then 5 years later it would come up again, and again, and again.
In 1991 or 1992, there was a report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute titled, “Dual Education in the Madison Metropolitan School District” that said there were two school districts, one serving black students and one serving everybody else.
About 5 years before that, I myself was part of a data set that showed disparities. I graduated from high school in 1989 and was a sophomore in 1987 when the Urban League looked at sophomores’ course taking patterns.
Every step of the way there were different things that people were looking at and every step of the way they found there were these huge disparities and over time those disparities grew.
Madison’s response was always to blame it on Chicago or blame it on Milwaukee. As the economies in those communities changed people left those cities to go elsewhere. It was always blamed on “those people” coming to Madison, even though years before there was an achievement gap. People strategically found ways to blame it on the newest phenomenon.
The problem is that we have never had an answer to it. We kept throwing little programs at it and limiting our focus to multi-cultural education as the solution, as if teaching black kids about Martin Luther King alone is going to be able to make them read better. You know what I’m saying?
Madison needed something that would break the mold and get people to pay attention. The data has told us, the research has told us, basic things. If you want children to do well academically, they have to be in a school that is culturally competent, meaning the school doesn’t see kids through a deficit lens but through an asset-based one. Our whole focus is on assessing children where they are and taking them further.
Richmond: Nine years ago, you proposed an all-boys charter school in Madison that was denied by the school board in the midst of a lot of controversy and hard feelings. You were an African-American male attacked for wanting to start a charter school for African-American males. It was harsh. What is different now?
Caire: Sometimes you just have to outlast your opposition. Live and operate with integrity and do it openly and transparently. If you’re willing to answer tough questions and you’re willing to have people walk through your space, over time they get to know who you are. They become more comfortable with you.
After we lost that fight [on the charter school], it was December 19, 2011, I’ll never forget it. The momentum we had generated by being open and transparent and talking to people and really getting out there, that built a groundswell of support for our school. The politics didn’t support us, but the people in the community did.
So, then I started the pre-school and people got to see how I really am. We named it “‘One City,’ everybody get involved.” This is the way I’ve been. They’ve got to see. “What this guy is saying, he’s not the right-wing Koch brother.” They’ve got to see how well our kids were doing.
Richmond: In your career, you led an education foundation in Washington, DC, then the Madison Urban League, and now One City. What values guide your work and your life?
Caire: I’m at an age now where I can understand and answer that question. We have to have a community-centered approach. The things we decide to push can’t just be about our own big ideas. It’s really important that we spend time listening to people and try to come up with the best solution that meets their interests. A lot of the organizing I have done has been trying to make sure we’re truly trying to operate in the best interests of the people involved.
I genuinely love people. I like people. I don’t care what their political backgrounds are. I don’t fight people who disagree with me. I don’t go into Facebook wars. I just listen to them and if they have a valid point, I’ll acknowledge it or if something they bring up is a shortcoming, I’ll try to fix it. But I don’t get into these fights with people
Each week, in “Three Questions For,” I interview interesting people in education and share their stories. I publish their interviews on Medium every Sunday and hope they provide you ideas and inspiration for your week. — Greg Richmond