Kaleem Caire is tired of waiting.
He has watched in frustration as yet another generation of young black men fail to reach their potential, as the achievement gap continues to widen, as the economic disparity between blacks and whites continues to grow.
“We have failed an entire generation of young men of color. We have not provided them with an education, and that is why so many of them end up in jail. It has to stop,” he says.
And if that means taking on the educational establishment and the teachers union, Caire is ready.
“In public schools, you are so strapped by rules and regulations. If teachers work outside the rules of the union, they get slapped,” he says.
Caire believes he knows how to address the needs of minority children in school, because he himself was on the verge of failing and turned himself around to become a national leader in educational reform.
Now, as president and chief executive officer of the Madison Urban League, he believes it’s time for a radical change. He wants the Madison School District to make a giant leap past all the half-steps, the liberal hand-wringing, the well-meaning but ineffective programs, and try something bold: Madison Preparatory Academy.
Madison Prep would be a charter school in the Madison School District, but it would be run by the Urban League, not the district.
It would be an all-male middle school. The young men will wear uniforms.
It would have a longer school day and a longer school year than other public schools.
It would be at least 50% black and Hispanic, although 100% minority would be fine with Caire: He’s tired of the paternalistic notion that the only way black kids can learn is if they’re sitting next to white kids.
“That just irks me,” he says.
Madison Prep would follow the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, currently used by only 13 schools in Wisconsin. In Madison, only the prestigious Madison Country Day private school uses IB.
It would employ the Harkness method of teaching, used in many of the nation’s top prep schools, where instead of standing in front of the class to teach, the teacher and students sit around an oval table. “Students can’t get lost in the back of the room,” Caire says.
But most of all, Caire says, Madison Prep would be “black male fail-proof.”
When Caire talks about his own life, it’s as though every single experience has been preparing him to undertake this challenge.
Michael Caire, 39, was born and raised on Madison’s south side. His father was in and out of prison; his mother lived on the street. Caire was raised by his aunt Gretchen.
She was the one who yanked him out of his neighborhood public school and sent him to St. James Catholic School.
“I have nothing but good to say about St. James,” Caire says. “The discipline was hard, and they taught you to work, but they did it in such a way that you felt loved. I felt like I was part of this community.”
In eighth grade, he switched to Jefferson Middle School, and that feeling of community disappeared. Caire began a downhill slide that accelerated throughout his high school years at Madison West, where he felt alone, ignored, invisible, and increasingly angry.
He graduated in 1989 with a whopping 1.56 grade point average, which wouldn’t get him into college, but it was fine by the U.S. Navy. Caire enlisted, was trained as a sonar tech, and was sent to sea inside a submarine.
“I joined the Navy to see the world, and I ended up seeing exactly three ports,” he recalls. “I was at sea for 72 days, most of it underwater.”
Caire credits the Navy with awakening him to his abilities and honing his leadership skills.
Caire chose Norfolk, Va., for his next naval assignment because of its proximity to Hampton University, a historically black college. Caire had been told it had a good supply of exceptionally pretty girls.
While assigned to the Norfolk naval base, he took classes at Hampton, and sure enough, an exceptionally pretty girl caught his eye: Lisa Peyton. A year later, they married.
At Hampton, Caire became interested in African studies, changed his name from Michael to Kaleem, and began studying the causes of today’s black underclass in America.
He and Lisa returned to Madison in 1993, and both enrolled at the UW-Madison. Over the next eight years, he earned a bachelor’s degree in education; worked as a consultant for the Madison schools and state Department of Public Instruction; won awards for his volunteer work; and coordinated a UW-Madison orientation program for minority students.
Lisa, who had earned a master’s degree in education administration and was working on her doctorate, designed the information technology component of the orientation program.
Fatefully, Caire met Howard Fuller, the visionary superintendent who fought to reform the chronically failing Milwaukee Public Schools. Fuller, Caire says, thought he could change the system from within, but the constant battles with the teachers union wore him down to the point his health was threatened.
It was Fuller, Caire says, who told him that the best way to improve minority education was by working outside the educational system. “‘You’ve got to get out of there!’ Howard told me.”
Caire moved his family to Washington, D.C., where Lisa took a job as associate director of the Educational Opportunity Center at the University of Maryland. Caire became president of Fuller’s Black Alliance for Educational Options and commissioned the nation’s first study of black high school graduation rates.
He was selected by President George W. Bush to serve on a panel evaluating No Child Left Behind. He worked for Target Corp. as a management trainer and started a charter school association in Washington, D.C. He helped evaluate applications for President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top funds.
The Caire family — now grown to five children — was quite happy in the Washington area, but when the CEO job at the Madison Urban League opened up, Caire couldn’t resist the chance to come home and try to make life better for the young people who are still living the way he grew up: poor and black in Madison.
To produce such change, Caire says, requires a radical new way of educating these kids: More discipline. More love. More community. More parental involvement. Fewer distractions.
Those are among the elements provided by highly successful private schools throughout the nation, and among the reasons Caire believes Madison Prep must be non-union.
“For one thing, we want a longer school day. This school would provide a lot of the family structure that some low-income mothers and fathers simply can’t. We want a longer school year, too — at least 210 days, instead of the current 180,” Caire explains.
The school would start with 90 students in sixth and seventh grade, then add a grade a year through high school. He hopes to start an all-girls school within two years of opening Madison Prep.
“I was giving a presentation at [Madison] Memorial High School recently, and one of the questions the kids asked was, ‘Why all boys?’” he said.
“I asked them, ‘What’s the number-one distraction for you in school?’ and they all agreed: It’s the opposite sex. We want to remove that ‘X’ factor.”
He adds: “We’re not just developing another school — we’re changing the whole way the school is set up.
“Everybody thinks boys are tough, but they’re not. They’re incredibly fragile. We plan to use teamwork and peer support to make them strong academically. We’re going to capitalize on the competitive nature of young men.”
“And we’re going to have discipline, he adds. “Every time they do something out of line, every time they have a negative thought, it will be corrected — immediately.”
“Education should be structured around the needs of the students, but in most public schools, it’s not,” he says.
“Education is not on the teachers union’s agenda,” Caire says. “Their agenda is protecting the teachers. I understand that. But that doesn’t fit with our agenda in starting Madison Prep.”
And fixing the way young black men are educated is just too important, he says. “We
cannot afford to fail again.”
Sunny Schubert is a Monona freelance writer and a former editorial writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.