Kaleem Caire, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, is a Madison native who is shaking up his hometown after spending a decade in Washington, D.C. A top priority is his proposal for a new public charter school in Madison aimed at African-American boys in grades six through 12. The Madison Preparatory Academy would offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum, a rigorous academic program aimed at college-bound students. Students would be required to wear uniforms, including white shirts, red blazers, black trousers and ties. The choice of red blazer is calculated: to encourage identification with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Caire proposes that the school could be built as part of a new, state-of-the art community facility in what he says is now under-utilized space in Penn Park on the city’s south side. The school, he says, could share the space with the local Boys and Girls Club.
CT: Why do minority students do so poorly in school, especially in Madison?
KC: They don’t feel like they fit, many of them. When you have one teacher, maybe, who’s of color in your school it says something about whether or not you’re really supposed to be there. And, the poverty rate among young people of color here is very large. Over 60 percent of our black and Latino families are living in poverty. They are going to have educational challenges. I’m not sure our school system is an environment designed to meet their needs.
CT: What will Madison Prep offer that’s different from what’s available in public schools?
KC: First of all, a culture of achievement, reinforced by teachers, parents and anybody who walks through those doors will understand these kids are going somewhere. All of them will be prepared for college and everybody involved in their lives has a role to play in that.
CT: Why would boys, especially African-American boys, benefit from a school without girls?
KC: Separating boys and girls you don’t have the interplay between the genders. Boys tend to learn differently, and boys tend to be more emotionally fragile at that age, too. We think our boys are strong because they are physically big and they are getting bigger! But emotionally they need someone to support and coach them along the way and encourage the teamwork they need to feel among their peer group instead of competition. Many of these young men lack father figures at home, and we’re going to build that in for them. We’ll bring into the school men who will support the emotional spirit and social development of young men.
CT: What do you say to criticisms that single-sex schools are not inclusive?
KC: Some aren’t. I’ll be honest with you. Some parents send their kids to schools that are all built around sports. The academics might be okay but it’s that macho, bravado environment that some parents seek for their sons. Our school is about helping young people become stewards of the world and that’s why it’s an International Baccalaureate curriculum. It emphasizes languages, critical thinking and it encourages students to see themselves as major players in a broader world, rather than just within their neighborhoods.
CT: How will you bring boys who are already behind a couple of years or more up to grade level so they are fully prepared for college?
KC: One, we will have a longer school day, a longer school year. They will start about 7:30 and end about 5 o’clock. Tutoring will be built into our school program. It will be built into each schedule based on your academic performance. We’re going to use ability grouping to tackle kids who are severely behind, who need more education. We’ll do that if we can afford it by requiring Saturday school for young people who really need even additional enrichment and so we’re going to do whatever it takes so we make sure they get what they need.
CT: What kind of commitment will Madison Prep require of parents or guardians?
KC: They have to sign a participation contract. These are non-binding contracts but it will clearly spell out what their expectations are of us and our expectations are of them. Parents will be given a grade for participation on the child’s report card. There are ways for ALL parents to be involved. You know, some people have asked, ‘What will you do if parents won’t show up to a child’s performance review?’ Literally, we’ll go set up our tables outside their houses and it will be kind of embarrassing but we’ll do it because we won’t allow our kids to be left behind.
CT: You’ve said you’d like to see more flexibility and innovation. Does that mean you’d like to run this school without a union contract?
KC: Yes. The union contract really prescribes the type of education young people are provided in a school. It ties teachers into certain hours of teaching and if you want them to do more you have to get support through the contract; you have to pay them extra. We don’t want a school that is so teacher-centric. We want a school that is centered around student achievement and get teachers involved who want to be in a school environment that is really wired for kids to succeed.
Second, we want our leadership and our teachers to have the flexibility to make curriculum and education work for these kids; we don’t want excessive rules. While I’m not opposed to unions and neither is our organization — we think there’s certainly a place for them — I wish they would be more flexible in developing schools that meet kids’ needs instead of being so tied to the contract. We want to succeed, we want that flexibility. For that reason, we need a school without that contract.