One City Schools founder Kaleem Caire remembers how excited he was for the first day of school as a kid growing up on the south side of Madison way back in the day.
“I remember my first day of school at Franklin Elementary School. My grandmother, all mothers, some dads would make a line every day and we would walk to school,” remembers Caire, a fifth-generation Madisonian. “I’d go down to my grandmother’s house at the end of Fisher Street and walk to kindergarten – all the way to Franklin – that was back when people knew each other, trusted each other. And we were all so excited for that first day of school.
“It was like a family. We want to bring that back,” he adds. “What you are seeing here today – the fun, the energy, the community … This feels amazing.”
Caire was excited to see the entire One City family out in front of the new Pleasant T. Rowland Leadership Campus at 1707 W. Broadway on Thursday morning to greet happy students on their first day of school at One City for the ’22-’23 school year. It was a party-like atmosphere where Paw Patrol mascots and several Badger athletes took photos with the kids as Vanessa McDowell, well-known in Madison as DJ Ace, played tunes in front of the building that has gone through a significant makeover over this summer.
Some of that building construction is still ongoing. The first floor of the building will eventually have a dance studio, a recording studio, a barbershop, and a credit union built out. Caire is conducting part of this interview with Madison365 in an unfinished room that will one day be a deejay booth. They also prioritized getting doors for schools for increased security.
“The rooms are beautiful. We still got a lot of construction work to do as you can see. But just look around this building … this feels outstanding, ” he says.
Last year, students from kindergarten-4th grade had classes on the third floor of the school, a former WPS Health Solutions building. Those students will all be moving up a grade as One City also adds 6th, 9th and 10th graders this year. The ultimate goal will be a full K-12 school.
Caire says that One City will have 550 students this year between both schools – One City Preschool is located over on Fisher St. on Madison’s south side – with the majority of those, 400, in the main building. When the building is all full in two years, Caire says that there will be 900 students K-12.
“We have over 400 families on our waiting list for elementary and climbing,” he says. “It took us a couple of years to get there to get that kind of recognition in the community and I expect that we’re going to be bursting at the seams in our secondary school.”
Caire says that the students and the staff are excited about the upcoming school year. Onc City now employs 106 team members and has an $11.4 million operating budget.
“The staff is different and the leadership is different in our elementary school. We have a new secondary school. We were able to get ahead of the hiring so we have a lot of experience on our team this year at every level,” Caire says. “The staff is excited, a little nervous, too, because there are a lot of new team members, a lot of growth. We’re going to double in size for students this year.”
During the first two weeks of school, One City won’t be teaching content.
“It’s all about building relationships. And then the teachers have another couple of weeks … they’re going to ease into that because we have the longer year and it’s really important,” Caire says. One City School students attend school year-round for the most part. “Next week, our secondary school students are going to be going to camp. So sixth graders will go to one of the camps and the ninth and 10th graders will go to another. And that’s where our staff and students will help build camaraderie and relationships when they start the year. That’s really important.”
While One City School is a tuition-free public charter school, One City Preparatory Academy (OCPA) is a unique 6th-12th grade school that combines the features of an EL Education Network School and an Early College and Career Model. Caire emphasizes that 45% of the new ninth graders at One City are special needs students.
“They’re coming to us with special needs. And people think that charter schools are just the cream [of the crop] and all … that is totally not the case,” he says. “And so because there are only a couple options in town, we’re seeing families whose kids aren’t finding success at other schools are coming here. So that’s the other thing: How are we going to prepare to make sure we meet the needs of these kids? How are we really prepared to serve our students who are the most challenged?”
Two recent announcements involving One City has the students and staff excited. One, One City Preparatory Academy was recently admitted to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) and will compete in varsity sports in boys soccer, girls volleyball and boys and girls cross country this fall.
Two, all instructional staff at One City Schools will begin working a four-day work week.
“Our teachers will be working four days – our assistant teachers, our students, support specialists, anybody working directly with children — and we’ve been able to work the schedule out and we’re really excited about it,” Caire says. “We are going to be doing multiple innovations at one time this year, and we think we’re going be really successful. We’re going to do them and watch it closely.”
Innovations are what Caire says makes One City different from many other schools …. that and the diversity of its students and, especially, its staff.
“I would say probably one of the most diverse staffs in the state. When you look at the range of diversity from age to race to orientation, all of that … it’s serious here,” Caire says. “We’ve shown that we can build it. The hiring process is one of the biggest challenges in education right now … you can have all the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don’t have people that can carry it out, then good luck with that.”
One City Schools is based on the two-generation model that puts an emphasis on family and community.
‘It is really about our connection with our families, we get to reestablish that traction that we had started before the pandemic. We had such a great time with our families – parents could drop their kids off at the school room door, get to meet their teachers get to know them like a family. Then COVID put us in these little boxes,” Caire says. “And so it’s taken a while to even climb out of the thinking of no bubbles. But now we know how to handle the health issues related to the virus. And so we’re letting our families with young kids start to drop their kids off. It’s nice.”
Caire looks over the mass of young people assembling outside the building getting ready to come in for their first days of school. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the kids interact with each other; especially the older kids,” he says.
‘We are going to make it fun. We’re going to make it interesting, relevant and rigorous. It has to be. You have to challenge the kids.”