“It’s hard to start a new thing. It’s hard to raise a ton of money while making sure the program is solid. Our teachers needed a lot of support. When you’re starting out something brand new, many times you don’t have the support,” says Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Early Learning Center on Madison’s south side. “When you are starting out, people can sour on what you’re doing real quick, so we put a lot of time and energy to make sure our teachers were happy and that our parents were happy and that the program worked well and that we had the community partnerships that we needed to succeed.”

One City Early Learning Center weathered that initial storm that all new endeavors face and will be celebrating its one-year anniversary of preparing young children for success in school and life with an open house on Thursday, Sept. 29 at its headquarters on Madison’s south side. For many, it will be their first chance to see all of the work that has been put into the center since its opening.

“It’s been a lot of work, man. But it’s so rewarding,” Caire tells Madison365. “And we have so much more to do yet. I’m looking forward to it.”

About three years ago, Caire decided to revive the old South Madison Child Development Incorporated (CDI), a child care institution in South Madison since the 1960s which had to close its doors over funding problems. One year ago, One City officially opened its doors to provide affordable, accessible, and high-quality preschool partnering parents and the community to prepare young children for school success. There are 35 children ages 1-5 currently enrolled at One City Early Learning and there is a capacity for 101.

Children enjoy their time at the One City Early Learning Center (Photo by Marcus Miles)
Children enjoy their time at the One City Early Learning Center
(Photo by Marcus Miles)

The upcoming open house will be a chance for Caire to talk about the experience he has had with One City over the past year and it will be a chance for parents of the children and the overall community, in general, to learn about the innovation that One City has been doing and its plans for the future.

“The open house will be a chance for us to tell people a little more about what we’re doing with the school and about the agenda for the school – both short term and long term,” Caire says. “We have a desire to grow and to expand and to serve the neighborhood. We’re also going to talk about the ‘Ready by 5’ campaign and that will really solidify this school. Our ultimate objective is to make sure that pre-school is available and accessible to every child.”

Located in the heart of the south side of Madison, one of the most racially, ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods in Wisconsin, One City is next door to the Boys and Girls Club on Taft St. and down the street from the townhouse at the top of Fisher St. across from Penn Park where Caire grew up.

“I had never planned this or thought about this but here we are in the old ‘hood and it’s pretty special,” Caire says. “Just seeing how it’s changed. There are still some elders there but there are none of the young people that I grew up with in that neighborhood.”

Caire says that children who can read, love to learn and can work effectively with others will be best prepared to lead happy lives and raise happy and healthy families as adults.

“Our long-term objective is to get people to sign on to pre-school for all,” he says. “This ‘Ready by 5’ campaign will be kicking off that night and it will be so important for what we are trying to do. The open house will be a chance for people to learn more about it. We see ourselves as an example-setting school for serving parents who don’t have a lot of money that delivers a high-quality model that will really get their children not only ready for school but the good foundation skills they need for life.”

Caire believes that he has come up with a model that is very affordable and is replicable and he hopes people in the community continue to get behind it.

“The feedback from the parents has been great. You know, we have parents that are very opinionated and adamant about their kids. They are active and involved and they want to know everything. But I love that,” Caire says. “It’s interesting. You’d think that some of these parents would not be like that. Some of them are struggling or working multiple jobs, but they are very into what we’re doing and we are very open with them. Overall, parents have been happy. They’ve been happy with the price and happy with the model and happy with the results.”

One City Early Learning Centers has been willing to be creative and think out of the box. For example, this past summer, they became the U.S. pilot site for the ground­-breaking AnjiPlay curriculum which was recognized by the president of China in 2014 with the National Award for Achievement in Early Childhood Education and will be adapted as a national curricular standard in China this year. The key elements that make up AnjiPlay are its pedagogy, site-specific environments, unique materials and integrated technology. The focus of the program is the participating children’s self-determination in choosing what, where, and with whom to play and the role of the teacher as observer, particularly in instances of physical risk.

One City Early Learning Center is a U.S. pilot site for the ground­breaking AnjiPlay curriculum which was recognized by the president of China in 2014 with the National Award for Achievement in Early Childhood Education.
One City Early Learning Center is a U.S. pilot site for the ground­breaking AnjiPlay curriculum which was recognized by the president of China in 2014 with the National Award for Achievement in Early Childhood Education.

“The kids love the AnjiPlay. The parents were, at first, like, ‘What’s this AnjiPlay?’ but we explained what it is all about,” Caire laughs. “We’re trying to go against the conventional way that we raised our children by getting our kids to explore and to challenge themselves early in life. We want kids to be active and curious and confident right from the first day of school.”

In fact, One City stresses creative thinking and innovation.

“We’re raising engineers here. We’re raising doctors and lawyers. These young people here will become community leaders and will be able to solve social problems,” Caire says. “So they have to be able to think critically. They have to be able to reason intelligently and to be able to process analytically. They have to be able to be creative. And all of those things should come natural.

“The reason why a lot of our kids struggle in math and don’t go into all types of disciplines is because they either haven’t been exposed to it in their immediate families or they’ve never learned the skills or have thought that this type of career wasn’t even a possibility,” he continues. “You see Epic [Systems], for example, and they don’t have a lot of black employees because a lot of our people are not prepared to go into those fields. So, we’re trying to change that around.

“The reality is that kids learn through trying and probing and taking risks … but we too often live with, ‘Don’t touch this. Don’t do that. Don’t talk to those people. Don’t go to that side of town’ and that’s really bad for our experience in this country,” Caire adds. “We’re missing out on opportunities. We’re not taking risks. We’re not starting new businesses.”

Caire worries about those young people who fall behind in the classroom and become angry and disruptive and get on a path where they never catch up. Caire wants to stop that right away. He wants to get kids going on the right path early.

(Photo by Marcus Miles Photography)
(Photo by Marcus Miles Photography)

“When that light comes on, you just watch the kids for a while and you get to see how they grow and how they are eager to get at things,” Caire says. “They are so young and they are taking on new things and trying new things and advancing every day. I just sit there and say to myself, ‘Damn, we really do our children a disservice by making them go through this treacherous living that so many kids have to go through when they don’t have what they need in order to stimulate their learning.’

“Poverty and disenfranchisement are locked in so deeply for many of our kids, not just our black kids but all kids,” he adds. “We have to change that and we will change that.”

One year in for One City, Caire knows that he’s only just begun.

“We want to grow. We want to make sure our program is as strong as possible. We want to create that bridge between pre-school and elementary education where what we do is really high quality and what the school district does is really high quality and it bridges together,” Caire says.

The One-Year Anniversary of One City Early Learning Center will be held Thursday, Sept. 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at 2012 Fisher St.