A proposal to open an all-male charter school in Madison geared toward boosting minority achievement faces an uphill battle in a liberal city historically resistant to such alternative public schools, supportive of cultural integration and pro-union.
Urban League President Kaleem Caire, who returned to Madison this year after starting a Washington, D.C.-based education foundation, said a new approach is necessary because the Madison School District is failing its minority students.
Only 52 percent of black male students graduated in 2009, compared with 88 percent of their white peers. Meanwhile, of the 3,828 suspensions last school year, 72 percent were of black students, even though they make up 22.4 percent of the student body. Similar gaps exist in participation rates for honors courses and college preparation tests.
"We're not preparing our kids to be leaders or productive workers in a knowledge economy," Caire said.
Parents had mixed responses to the idea.
Mike Harris, who has a 9-month-old son and is studying to become a police officer, reacted skeptically to Caire's idea, because a school segregated by gender and predominantly black wouldn't reflect society.
"School is supposed to prepare a child for the real world," said Harris, who is black.
Jonathan Rubin, a white Lowell Elementary School parent who prefers his children learn in a culturally diverse setting, worries Caire's approach could make traditional public schools less diverse. But based on the success of all-male charter schools, he wonders if a new approach to the historic emphasis on integration is needed.
"The liberal in me reacts against it, and yet if I see results I have to bite my tongue," Rubin said.
Radically different school
For the past several weeks, Caire has pitched his proposal for the Madison Preparatory Academy to community groups and School Board members. As a charter school, it would receive funding as part of the public school system but be free of certain state and district regulations.
Caire expects to introduce a formal proposal to the School Board next month with the goal of opening in fall 2012. A possible location has not been selected. His plan for the school includes:
• Three classes of 15 students each in sixth- and seventh-grade, with one grade added each subsequent year. If too many students apply, enrollment would be based on a lottery system.
• Students would wear uniforms and be expected to attend a four-year college or professional training program after graduation. Caire hopes to recruit black men as teachers because he said they would be better equipped to serve as strict disciplinarians and role models.
• The school would offer an International Baccalaureate honors curriculum, with an emphasis on critical thinking skills, community service and learning about other cultures while immersed in a familiar culture.
• Though not exclusively for minorities, Caire said he would like half of the students to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch to ensure the school enrolls more minority students.
Caire said he also may accelerate plans to seek approval for a second charter school for girls in response to feedback he has received.
Union sticking point
School District and School Board members expressed interest in the concept, though they're still waiting for more details, especially a financial plan.
"I don't want more charter schools simply for the sake of having more charter schools," board member Ed Hughes said. "It (has to be for) something we would have a hard time achieving or even attempting under a traditional structure."
Madison hasn't approved as many charter schools as other parts of the state. Of the 208 public charter schools in Wisconsin, only two are in Madison, though on Nov. 29 the School Board is expected to approve a third - an urban-agriculture-themed middle school south of the Beltline near Rimrock Road.
The biggest hurdle, however, might involve a proposal to use non-union teachers employed by the charter school's governing board, as opposed to the School District. Only 21 of the state's public charter schools have a similar setup.
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said teachers would oppose a non-union charter school.
"It would be foolish public policy and a foolish commitment of the public's funds to finance a project over which the elected body committing the public's money does not have full control over both the expenditures and the policies of the operation," Matthews wrote in an e-mail.
Caire wants the school year to span 215 days, rather than the standard 180 days, and the school day to run from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.
"Our whole model isn't designed to fit within the teacher contract," he said.
Research has shown extended hours of instruction "have a significant influence on student achievement," said Madeline Hafner, executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network at UW-Madison.
There has been a national movement to open all-male charter schools, Hafner said, "particularly in areas where community members and families have felt the public schools have not been able to provide a teaching and learning environment for their kids to get into and be successful in college."
Early results have showed success in cities such as Chicago and Washington, but that doesn't necessarily mean the model would work in Madison, Hafner said.
Minority students have struggled in Madison and nationally for several reasons, including a family history of poverty, cultural disconnect between teachers and students, a dearth of professional role models, and a peer culture that devalues studiousness as "acting white," said Virginia Henderson, president of the African-American Ethnic Academy in Madison and a former minority achievement coordinator for the Madison School District.
"In the kind of schools that Kaleem is composing, kids are not going to be ashamed to be smart," Henderson said.