Heinen: The One City Early Learning Center Model

One City plans to open an elementary school
Heinen: The One City Early Learning Center Model

A playground full of kids is an invitation to dream. Walking past an outdoor area with children in full-energy activity is mind-altering. Whatever mundane obsessions are occupying my brain are suddenly erased and replaced by joyful observation and wondrous speculation. The innocence and the glee of kids of all colors, sizes and abilities having fun together is so hopeful, I take it in for as long as I can.

That was the scene at One City Early Learning Center’s playground in mid-November as I walked past it after leaving an information session on One City’s plans to open an elementary school. (One City currently offers junior and senior preschool, plus additional learning programs for kids and parents.) The happy, healthy, somewhat dizzying blur of play was but one example of why the expansion is necessary.

One City rocks at nurturing kids and families. Its success in just three years is remarkable. Preschool enrollment has grown from six children when the doors opened in 2015 to 91 children today. Using Madison Metropolitan School District data, 94 percent of children entering kindergarten had the skills to succeed in school. Family engagement is strong and enthusiasm is demonstrable. There’s a One City buzz, both inside and outside its Fisher Street building.

There is so much to like about One City’s structure and operation, starting with founder, President and CEO Kaleem Caire. Caire’s bedrock passion for education has always been part of what hasn’t always been a straight-line career path. But all of the elements of his business, civic, nonprofit and activist education ventures have come together at One City as an exceptionally well-run, financially sound, academically rigorous place for kids and families.

His support team is strong, his board is smart, engaged and strategically composed most notably of parent leaders from One City’s enrollment. He has built important relationships with both University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education and Edgewood College with some of the most respected faculty and researchers from both institutions actively participating in One City’s programming, operation and evaluation of results. He attracted one of Madison’s most talented educators, Nuestro Mundo Community School founder Bryan Grau, as One City principal of the senior preschool and as the founding principal of One City’s planned elementary school. Teachers seem excited to work at One City. And Caire is building an impressive group of supportive civic leaders. Most importantly, and tellingly, Caire has a smart, collaborative and mutually supporting relationship with MMSD Superintendent Jen Cheatham. That says something about both of them.

As hot a word as innovation has become in the world and 21st century economy, it has not always been embraced by the education sector in the United States, at least not in the public education sector. One City is what innovative education looks like. The UW-Madison-born Families and Schools Together, or FAST, Program is part of the family support component of One City’s mission, and FAST founder, Dr. Lynn McDonald, is on the board. The schools employ the Expeditionary Learning curriculum of active, purposeful learning. And it is the first school in the country to offer the AnjiPlay learning model developed in China. The model was created by an educator who has welcomed One City’s use of site-specific environments, unique materials and integrated technology to enhance learning and cognitive development. Eventually One City will be where other interested U.S. educators come to learn about AnjiPlay.

After some serious reflection, Caire and the board of One City have decided to add an elementary school rather than just grow the preschools. That’s going to require a new building and more funding for operations. There will be a capital campaign in the spring. One City’s potential is unlimited. It is already part of the answer to the achievement gap, to the disparities uncovered in the Race to Equity report and in the critical need to ensure all of our kids are ready to succeed in order to make Madison the city we all want it to be.

Side notes

Addiction recovery helpline
Kudos to United Way of Wisconsin for adding the state’s new Addiction Recovery Helpline to its existing 2-1-1 information and resource availability phone service. Fully focused on recovery, callers will find access to insurance, treatment options and other resources. The new helpline will greatly broaden United Way’s reach to people in need of crisis and detoxification services, medication-assisted treatment and more. It’s a welcome addition to a growing awareness of the need during an opioid crisis in Wisconsin.

“Fun Home” was fun
And it was also smart, well-acted, well-directed and well-produced. Landing Tony-winning actress Karen Olivo for Forward Theater’s first musical “Fun Home,” was a coup. One young Boston-based actor (and nephew of this writer) was blown away by the quality of the whole experience. So was this writer. Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray and her team have kicked Forward up a notch or several with the extended run of this terrific play. Professional theater in Madison looks better than ever.