One city mission

Kaleem Caire’s dream finally takes shape with One City Schools.
06 Exec Profile Issue 1
Photograph by Hedi Lamarr Photography

When his idea for Madison Preparatory Academy, a charter school for Black boys, was voted down by the Madison school board in 2011, Kaleem Caire dug in.

In Caire’s bid to create a different educational model, the founder and CEO of One City Schools has been proving naysayers wrong ever since. He launched One City Schools preschool on Fisher Street in 2015 to kick-start his independent alternative. It has expanded to 167 students in grades 4K–two, with grades three and four being added this fall and plans for a fifth grade next year.

In March, aided by a $14 million pledge from philanthropist Pleasant Rowland, One City Schools announced the purchase of a 157,000-square-foot facility from WPS Health Solutions for $12 million. It will become the state’s only early college and career preparatory secondary school for grades six–12 and open as One City Preparatory Academy (OCPA) in September 2022.

By the time the first high school class graduates in 2025, the two public charter schools will enroll a total of 888 K–12 students, mostly children of color.

A 100,000-square-foot athletic center also is being proposed. If approved, it could include an indoor soccer facility, basketball court, exercise equipment, weights, and locker rooms. “Sports and extracurricular activities are co-curricular,” insists Caire.

We spoke with him recently about his long journey and One City’s rigorous curriculum.

Was OCPA something the Madison community had asked for, or something you felt Madison needed?

I felt the community really needed a college prep school. It’s modeled after other schools where children take college-level classes as a part of their education. Instead of young people leaving our school to take on enormous debt in college, let’s give them college algebra in ninth grade. The only difference is that college algebra is taught over a semester by a master’s degree teacher, and elementary algebra is taught over a year by a bachelor’s degree teacher. We’re hiring teachers with master’s degree credentials to teach the prerequisite college courses that students would otherwise have to pay for and test out of. The hope is that by the time they graduate, they’ll have a minimum of 30 college credits.

Pleasant Rowland provided a spark for the building, but who pays for the education?

Pleasant has given us $5 million already, so she’s now pledged $19 million for One City’s growth. People think charter schools get all kinds of money from the state, but they don’t get nearly enough to cover costs. This year, Wisconsin public charter schools will get $9,165 per pupil (K–12).

Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) will spend over $16,000 per student. They need it with what they want to do. They’re a big system, but they also get state aid and offset that with local property taxes because they can levy the community.

MMSD also counts our kids in their levy, but we don’t get the money. Is that fair? If we received that money and didn’t have to spend so much on fundraising, we could do things right.

So, does OCPA charge tuition?

No, except for the preschool. This is a public school, so people just need to apply.

With Madison Prep, you wanted to hire teachers of color to teach Black boys. Are you doing the same here?

First, we’re no longer single-gender focused. One City Schools is open to anyone, but 85% are students of color and 15% are white.

Our entire school model is designed to be Black-male failproof because that’s the group that fails most frequently. We want to be sure a high percentage of students are low-income and of color so we can make a big dent in the challenges, but we can’t restrict white kids from attending. We’re overmarketing our school to communities of color to reach that minority population.

Is there a sense of freedom in designing your own curricula?

There is! Our teachers are not part of the teacher’s union, so we have the longest school day and the longest school year. School days go from 8 to 4:30 because we don’t want kids wandering around with nothing to do in the afternoons, and the school year runs Sept. 1 through July 31.

We have a two-generational model, meaning parents are not only deeply involved in our decisions, they can be very vocal!

Every student will obtain a driver’s license unless they have a physical impairment because often, young kids’ first contact with police happens because they’re driving without a license.

By 10th grade, our kids will begin their college courses and engage in internships and apprenticeships in several occupations.

We’ll offer courses in financial literacy — teaching about the markets, mutual funds, mortgages, and how to buy a home or sign a lease for an apartment. We’ll make sure that all of our students have a bank account and know how to manage it.

I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t learn about investing until I was over 40 years old! I was afraid of it.

At OCPA, we expect that 100% of our students will earn at least 30 college credits, at our expense, by the time they complete the 12th grade so they can pursue a credit transfer program with UW–Madison or Madison College, for example. We’re in active communications with UW, the School of Education, and Madison College, and we’ll also form relationships with top U.S. colleges and universities. I’m determined to get Harvard on that list!

How is teacher recruitment going?

Good! We do a lot for our teachers. There are two per classroom through second grade. We pay them the same as MMSD, offer a 401(k) benefit, full health benefits, and chef-prepared healthy meals — meaning free breakfast, lunch, and a snack — because we want them to sit and eat with the kids.

Do you now feel somewhat vindicated after Madison Prep was voted down?

I’m not going to lie. It’s been very tough on me and my family. They say the greatest victories sometimes come on the opposite side of the greatest struggles, and that’s what this is.

To some degree, it does feel like vindication, but I’m not angry. I just want Madison to see what it’s capable of doing. If we just think outside the box, explore the possibilities, and invite the community to rally around these kids, we can produce excellence over and over again! But tinkering around the edges as we have done for years has not worked.

This is about the children! I want our students to walk out of our school armed with the knowledge and information to live and thrive and not be afraid so maybe they can help their own families. We still have a lot to prove, but we’re proving it.

On another subject, a lot has happened over the past year, with racial tensions and elections. Thoughts?

I don’t know of any other city in the country that is 75% white but has a city council mostly of color, or a school board president, vice president, and a public-school superintendent that are all Black!

We’re pushing a great racial equity message forward, but I also think the drumbeat against white men has gotten too loud and I worry about that. If we operate in the same way our oppressors operated, meaning to not practice real equity, we’ll be right back to where we were.

As a Black man, I hear how white men are referenced and I worry that we’re moving to disrespect them in ways that we may have felt disrespected by them, and that will only hurt us.

If we don’t show more compassion, we’ll be no better off. Yes, we’re forcing change, but I just hope we do things in a way that’s sustainable.

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