January 2012

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live in a man's world Kaleem Caire By Sarah DeRoo Kaleem Caire knew all along that it would come down to the votes. On Dec. 19, after countless plans, meetings and debates, the members of the Madison School Board had their say, voting on a 5-2 margin against a proposal for the Madison Preparatory Acad- emy, a charter school aimed at low-income minority students. As the man behind the plan, Caire, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, has become the community's most outspoken advocate for minority education, bringing light to the alarming achievement gap plaguing Madison's public schools. It's a passion that was born from personal experience. A Madison native, Caire grew up on the city's south side. He was a smart kid who got off to a rough start, and took off from Madison after grad- uating high school with a 1.56 GPA. Years later he returned with Navy service and a year of college under his belt (where he boasted a 4.0, by the way). He transferred to UW-Madison and majored in urban education and spent eight years laying the groundwork for local change before next heading to Washington, D.C., to cham- pion education. He returned to his hometown in 2010, where he lives today with his wife, Lisa, and their five children. Speaking the day after the contentious school board meeting, his rallying cry to the community remains the same: We can do better. When you returned to Madison after a decade in Washington, D.C., what did you see in your community? It seemed like the vibe, the spirit of change, that was still some- what in the air when I left had totally evaporated. But it's been enlightening and invigorating to see how many people want to see something different happen here. Why was the proposal for Madison Prep your first step in addressing the achievement gap? For us, education is the wheel that drives everything. If you don't have a good education, you won't have a good job, you won't be able to move forward [in your own life]. The reality is … that some kids need the schools to play surrogate parents in areas where they don't have that. If you've got a bad parent who's disengaged or locked up, our community needs to find a way to wrap their arms around that kid. It's not their fault their parents screwed up. So we gave [the Madison School Board] a school design that said here's how we deal with that: We become the family for these kids in as many ways we can. Here's how we become the disciplinar- ian, the accountability, the support, the nurturer—and they voted against it. What does the school board vote say to you about where we're at as a community? That we're at a crisis point. We don't have the right leadership in place for our school system. And you can write that. How the Urban League of Greater Madison president got Madison talking We have some good board members that had issues initially with our proposal, but they shared those with us. On the other hand, three of the board members that voted against us refused to meet with us from March, when they approved our planning grant and we started writing our plan, until we submitted it. They would not meet with us. What kind of governance is that? Do you see it as a victory at all that you've gotten Madison talking about the issue? Yes. What we learned, by chance, was that our school district has a lot of flaws. I believe they do not know how to adjust to the new population of kids we serve. When I graduated high school, Madison schools were about 18 or 19 percent nonwhite. Now it's almost 60 percent. It was 22 percent poverty when I graduated. It's now over 50 percent. That's a radical change, and you cannot continue to educate in the same way when facing that. As we move into 2012, where is your focus? We're going to try and get Madison Prep open by next fall. And we're going to address the broader systemic challenges that our school system has in addressing its achievement gap while at the same time providing quality options for families, because we can- not continue to lose the middle class population from our schools. Then we're going to address the leadership vacuum that exists. Despite your frustration today, are you still proud to call Madison home? Absolutely. There's a Madison that I dream of, an idea of commu- nity, and I think we can have that. ••• 28 BRAVA Magazine January 2012

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