Nonprofit school celebrates its first graduation

Eight graduates from pre-school program
Nonprofit school celebrates its first graduation

Graduation is such an exciting time and experience. Caps, tassels and gowns. An emotional commencement march with “Pomp and Circumstance” piping through the loudspeakers. A nervous excitement fills the air as graduates delight in their accomplishments, share the special occasion with fellow peers and wonder what the future holds.

For eight area students who graduated in June, the future is kindergarten, where they land this month after an early childhood education that prepared them to enter Madison’s K-12 school system. They were students at One City Early Learning Centers, a startup nonprofit founded by its CEO Kaleem Caire, who is former president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

After the graduates made their way down the aisle–each soaking in their moment and with only one meltdown (they were only 4 years old, after all)–their two teachers introduced them one by one with a warm and witty tribute to their unique styles and strengths. Next came the graduation speaker–Dr. Jasmine Zapata, a UW Health newborn hospitalist–who told them to “never give up on your dreams.” After the speech, all the children in the room were invited up for story time, a reading aloud of “Wherever You Go.” Finally, they received their diplomas, a handshake and hug from Caire, and the flip of tassels signified their newly earned status as alumni.

One City is an entrepreneurial endeavor if there ever was one. The building was previously occupied by a preschool; everything else, Caire and his team built from scratch. Founded in 2015 and launched in 2016, One City is a core element of Caire’s vision for Madison to become a place where students of color receive the same opportunities to succeed in school and in life as their white counterparts.

I love how Caire affectionately calls One City students “our babies.” It’s clear the father of five has found his sweet spot in this latest venture. Caire is perhaps best known for a startup that never launched–the charter high school for students of color called Madison Prep, which the school board voted down in 2011. With the district’s decision to tackle the racial achievement gap without his college preparatory model, Caire envisioned a different solution: “Offer tuition scholarships to families based on their cost of living and economic need, and ask the community to cover the cost of the facility renovation, furniture, playground equipment and materials, and startup supplies,” according to the website.

The name of the school is as mission-driven as it is a smart strategy to unite the community around his vision. Attending One City’s graduation ceremony sure felt like a community event. I counted more than 100 people–from proud parents and grandparents to volunteers, donors, board members, community leaders and pastor Marcus Allen of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where the event took place. One City is right across the street from the church, mere steps away from the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, and around the corner from beautiful Penn Park.

As the ceremony drew to a close, Caire implored the audience to continue support of One City. A quality preschool, Caire noted, can be more expensive than college tuition and a heavy burden for young families. Caire’s words rang true in my own life–we had a very difficult time affording our daughter’s preschool (more than $10,000 per year) on top of everything else. Looking back, I think of how lucky we’d be to have people like Caire in our corner.

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Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at

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