Two facts that we know to be true: One, children who can read, who love to learn, and who can work effectively with others will be best prepared to lead happy lives and raise happy and healthy families as adults. Two, many children of color in low-income families don’t start their learning in accredited childcare centers and quickly fall behind their peers. Most never catch up.

Kaleem Caire, founder and president of One City Early Learning Center on Madison’s south side, knows that his new endeavor will help create opportunities for struggling young people and their parents. One City Early Learning Centers believes in the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

“It’s huge to be able to say that in South Madison we have this organically grown thing created by a native Madisonian from Fisher Street who was born and raised in the area,” Caire tells Madison365. “It gives some inspiration to what we are doing, but the focus is really trying to get these kids ready for school.

“We want to be that great place where your kid can get started,” he adds. “Here’s a place to connect you to things that are already going on that you can benefit from. And we’re going to work as hard here to do what’s best for your child.”

Through One City, Caire has rebranded and relaunched Child Development Inc., a child care institution in South Madison since the 1960s, as he works to head off educational inequalities before they have a chance to start. One City promises to cultivate healthy, happy, thoughtful, and resourceful children who have the capacity and commitment to empower others and change the world, their families, and communities for the better.

They officially started on Sept. 8 at Fountain Of Life on Madison’s south side, which is their temporary location until early next year when their Fisher Street building’s renovation will be completed.

Their total fundraising goal is $1.85 million. One City just recently passed the $1 million mark, which makes Caire extremely happy. “Fundraising has been going really well. We are excited,” he says. “Most of that has been private contributions – both pledges and cash. About $224,000 of that is a low-interest community development loan from Forward Community Investments where they literally bought the building for us. We’re going to have to buy it from them eventually but it gives us some time.”

Caire says that One City shoots to give people a “Cadillac-type of program” at a moderate price that families can afford.

The Yellow Room at One City Early Learning Center
The Yellow Room at One City Early Learning Center

Right now, One City has three teachers and four classrooms, but the plan is to grow. “We plan on serving no more than 38 children here [at Fountain of Life] total. Once we get over to the other building, we’ll grow to no more than 53 kids by January through July with the goal of growing as much as possible after that if we can find good teachers. That’s the challenge,” Caire says.

The diversity for those high-quality teachers are hard to find here in Madison. “The person who has taken over at UW Early Childhood education has said that she’s seen 10 students of color in her 13 years,” Caire says. “That highly trained college-educated teacher that we are looking for is not there. So, we’re going to have to help create them.”

One City’s mission is to prepare young children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life, and ensure they enter grade school reading-ready. They have a two-generational model. “We’re going to help get your kid ready for school and we’re going help mom and dad move forward with whatever their personal and professional goals are,” Caire says. “We want to work with partners to help address issues that people are facing that cause them stress. Because psychologically, if you’re healthy, you will approach things more favorably and more positively in regards to your children. If the world is pinning you in and you feel like you have nowhere to turn to, it makes it that much more difficult to help your child succeed.”

Prior to One City, Caire was well known as the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison where he implemented new education and workforce training programs, initiatives, and partnerships and helped start a much-needed conversation around the tremendous racial disparities in education in Madison.

It’s been a trying journey for Caire the last few years. He says he lost a lot of friends in Madison when he tried to start a charter school geared for black boys as a means of bridging the educational achievement gap. “After that Madison Prep vote and during [former Urban Leaguer] Nichelle Nichols’ campaign [for MMSD School Board], I saw all of these people walk away from me and treat me like I was radioactive,” Caire remembers. “For every five friends there were two or three who shied away from me or stopped talking to me. People were so afraid of the union. It was a fear thing.

“For the last year [at the Urban League] I was just sucking wind; just trying to get through the day. In those jobs, you can’t really show it. Physically, I wasn’t very healthy with pre-diabetes and my weight had really bloomed,” he adds.

Now Caire looks fresh and energetic. He’s skinnier now – down 28 pounds from the Urban League days – and says he plans on losing even more weight. “This has been very good for me. I knew that I had to go back and do what I do – start-ups and working with schools,” he says. “When this opportunity came around, I knew that this was what I needed to be doing. This is what I’m going to be doing for a long time.”

Young people help with the One City Early Learning Center move to Fountain of Life.
Young people help with the One City Early Learning Center move to Fountain of Life.

Caire says he knows that One City Early Learning Center will be a success if it helps lessen racial disparities in Madison.

“There are different categories of racial disparities challenges. There’s the institutional/structural/systemic barriers that create, in my opinion, and reinforce the cycle of poverty,” Caire says. “There is also where you start – I’m down here and trying to get up there but the system is pressing me back. I don’t know how to work the system. We start out with the people around us pressing us back because of what we go through every day in poverty. It’s not intentional, but it’s just the way it is.

“It’s no secret that people need help to facilitate their move. There isn’t one businessperson in Madison who didn’t have help. Our folks are just left behind. People see them and see a ‘problem’ or a ‘challenge’ to be dealt with … or they need a service,” Caire adds. “No, they need an opportunity. They need you to identify what they are good at and help them figure out how to move through and grow with and challenge them.”

Caire says he wants One City Early Learning Center to be that necessary and needed community support.

“We won’t be working alone. I look around and I think that things are changing in Madison for the better. There are doors that are being opened that were once closed. People are more aware,” Caire says. “You have people like Madison365 pointing out things. You have people thinking differently than they once did. I feel like things are different. There’s a lot going on. What’s happening right now in Madison, brother, is awesome. But we have to keep it going. We have to sustain. What we are capable of doing in this city is profound.”

One of the priorities for One City right now will be to continue fundraising which will help them complete their facility and will make sure that they have the resources to support their families.

“We want to make sure that we have a steady supply of high-quality educators that can work with us and great volunteers who can tutor our kids and read to them,” Caire says. “We want our kids to have consistency in their lives every day. We want them to have stability.

“Ultimately, one of our goals is to have ways to connect these kids and their families to the greater community,” he adds. “So, it’s really [about] establishing those partnerships. We’ll be pushing on enrollment soon, so we will letting people know that the importance of getting their kid into a early childhood program that is really focused on preparing them for school is not an option … it’s absolutely critical. This is not something you do if ….. this is something like breathing. You have to do it.”