What makes Kaleem Caire tick?

Every once in a while, when I’m thinking about this more perfect union that each succeeding generation (including ours) is supposed to be forming, I wonder what it would be like if every segment of the American family lived up to its full potential.

Maybe I need to get a life, but I’m especially worried about people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. As someone who grew up in a family of fairly meager means, I know it’s possible for a young person to escape such circumstances if he or she does one very important thing – take his or her education seriously.

In talking to Kaleem Caire, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, I came to appreciate his conviction that education is the ultimate poverty buster. Under Caire, a Madison native who earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Urban League is trying to break through various cultural, economic, and policy barriers with the Madison Preparatory Academy, a school that will establish a new education model for young African American men.

For Caire, this attempt to build a road to economic success for African Americans has been “predictable” in terms of where the opposition comes from – not necessarily the public education community, but people who are ideologically opposed to such a school.

On the flip side, the outpouring of support has been wonderful. “We haven’t asked too many groups to give formal support yet, but we’ll begin doing that,” Caire said.

Caire and roughly 120 other volunteers involved in the school’s formation still have a lot of work ahead to make this vision a reality. A school board is being put together, and the process of hiring someone to run the academy is coming to a close (that person should be chosen and ready to begin by Aug. 1).

Organizers are looking to launch the school’s first fundraising event on July 30, which will be a birthday present for Caire. A website soon will be unveiled, and the school already has started accepting information from parents. Expect even more aggressive outreach, primarily centered around a school facility, as autumn leaves begin to change colors.

“The fundraising is about securing and renovating a facility for students,” Caire noted. “We will be in a temporary facility for the first two or three years before we build a permanent facility or move into one that can house all the students that will be served. We’re looking at property along the Park Street corridor, from downtown all the way to the Beltline, and then also along East Washington Avenue from Breese Stevens Field down toward the Capitol.”

To the credit of the Madison Metropolitan School District, it is talking to the Urban League about the possibility of renting space for the school, Caire said. The Urban League also has been engaged in talks with the local teachers’ union leadership about a constructive role the union can play. “I don’t want to be presumptuous and say we’re partnering yet, but we are in conversations with the teachers’ union about a potential partnership,” Caire stated.

Hopefully, any partnerships can move the needle in the right direction on educational attainment. Madison saw a reduction in graduation rates among African American and Latino students in 2010; African American students had a 56% graduation rate in 2009, and that dipped to 48% in 2010.

As Caire notes, obstacles inside and outside the school system are driving those results, and Madison Prep Academy is designed to deal with both. On the academic side, the school culture will be conducive to an engaged style of learning, not falling behind, as school begins promptly (with breakfast) at 7:30 p.m. and ends at 5 p.m., with longer class periods, time for reflection, and time for coaching and mentoring and one-on-one tutoring in between (extra tutoring after the school day ends).

In rethinking conventional classroom instruction, the Harkness Method of education, where each student takes responsibility for his or her own education, will be employed. There will be no theater-style seating where students can hide. Instead, students will be engaged around an oval table “so we can keep the focus on learning in the group rather than allow students to easily drift or hide behind their peers,” Caire explained.

Students will be graded on participation in athletics, which will be considered co-curricular, not extra-curricular. Teachers will have an opportunity to earn a decent living, the equivalent of a Madison teacher who has been teaching for seven years with a master’s degree, with performance bonuses partially based on student performance, the success of their teaching methods (with extra money for professional development), and the teacher’s engagement with students and school programs.

Parents will be expected to be deeply engaged in the education of their young men, a critical component in any educational model.

And, oh yes, the school year itself will be longer.

A revenue model to support this concept is developing as well, including support from workforce development programs, foundations, corporations, and individuals. The United Way of Dane County and the CUNA Mutual Foundation are among the nonprofit and corporate partners that already have stepped up to the plate.

Since a high school diploma is no longer enough to make even a livable wage, this prep school will be all about prepping young men for what comes next. “Our school is just wired differently,” Caire said. “It’s wired specifically to meet the needs of these young people and also prepare them for college.”

Some might say Caire is wired differently, too. If so, thank goodness. He’s the kind of person who comes along every once in awhile and attempts to stop the insanity known as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. This community is blessed to have such a man.

About last week …

The one regret I have about last week’s column is not that I linked two separate stories (Ron Johnson’s alleged campaign finance violation vs. the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiasco), it’s that I did not provide more of a historic perspective on why the lending standards of financial institutions were relaxed. The people who advocated for relaxing these standards were attempting something noble – to increase home ownership among economically disadvantaged populations. Their motives stemmed from America’s legacy of housing discrimination, including the discriminatory practice of redlining, which negatively impacted everything from education to home ownership. Unfortunately, we went too far in the other direction to accommodate home ownership, and that’s how so much “toxic debt” accumulated in the financial system.

Normally, I’m not one to favor curriculum mandates imposed outside local educational jurisdictions, but we need effective financial literacy in grades K-12 to reduce the intolerably high levels of poor credit among people of all backgrounds. I realize this is fodder for reasonable debate, but credit history is a huge factor in a bank’s decision-making on mortgage loans, which is why there can be disparities in the securing of such loans even among people with similar incomes.

As the financial crisis proves, our legacy of discrimination does indeed continue to harm us, but the solutions have to be applied with common sense and, in the spirit of the Madison Preparatory Academy, with education (in this case, consumer education) as a critical component.

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