I’m going to give you a number.
That number has probably defined me more than any other statistic in my life. That number, 48235, is my zip code. It’s my home. It’s Detroit.
Whether playing for the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, different NBA teams, or today, as I go back and forth between L.A. and Bristol, the one thing that’s been a constant is that Detroit remains home. I always have an ear to what’s happening in my hometown, good or bad. And because I’m always in the know, I have a snapshot of how I can truly influence Detroit’s next generation, and that’s through education.
Because here’s another number.
That’s the amount Detroit public schools receive per student. Third grade, 12th grade, or anywhere in between, that’s it. Less than $10,000. While other places such as Washington, D.C. or New Jersey are investing more than double that on kids.
You’ve all seen the photos of Detroit’s decline. The boarded-up houses. The burned-out car frames. But you don’t actually know these people or these neighborhoods, or that there are now 55 vacant schools. And it seems like for every school we close, we open up another jail or prison.
But before all that — even before my own upbringing — Detroit was a thriving city. It was the American dream. You could come to Detroit, which was led by the auto industry, and if you were willing to roll up your sleeves and work 40 hours a week, you could get a nice paying job. You could take care of your kids and put them in a good school.
By the 80’s, though, the crack epidemic had swept the city. It broke down a lot of the family dynamics. It heightened a lot of the violence. Couple that with the recession and the decline of the auto industry, and Detroit is no longer thriving. It’s just struggling to survive. Kids today are having to make choices earlier and earlier on how to navigate their futures.
It’s a choice I had to make myself.
As a teenager, I’d sit on a friend’s porch who lived across the street. About 15 of us would gather — boys and girls that we went to school with, other people from the block and the neighborhood. The boombox would be blasting one of the favorites at the time, like Whodini, Run DMC or LL Cool J. You got the 40-ouncers going, you got teenagers smoking, this and that. We were just teens in the 80’s. I had friends skipping school, selling drugs, stealing cars.
Until one afternoon, when my older brother Bill came back from a long day’s work, and I could tell he was just not in the mood to see us — me in particular — being so celebratory. He got out of his car, came over to the porch and basically snatched me up by my collar. In front of everyone. It wasn’t so much him dragging me from the porch than what he said to me next that really resonated:
“Don’t you have something to do? Why don’t you get in the house and read a book or something?”
That changed things for me. Big time. I wanted to be educated. I had fallen in love with basketball, but I didn’t want to be considered a dumb jock. So in high school, while I took pride in being a McDonald’s All-American, I also took pride in being an Honor Roll student. Same in college. While I took pride in being a member of the Fab Five, I was also on the Dean’s list and made sure I went back to school to earn my degree. That worked for me because of my family, my upbringing and what was possible in 70’s. Things had really changed since the 60’s and better educational opportunities for kids like me were at least a possibility.
But today, rather than inequalities based on race, there’s now a fiscal divide that exists in public education. And it needs to change.
My mom is in her 70’s. I have a grandmother who’s 98 years old. So I’m home often. Because of those trips and my relationship with the city, it wasn’t hard to see that where I could make the biggest difference was in our struggling school system.
So I founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in — where else — the 48235. The public charter high school is just two miles from the house that I grew up in, the same house where I still get my hair cut. This is my neighborhood. These are my neighbors.
The Academy was founded in 2011 as a progression of my foundation, which distributed over 40 college scholarships to Detroit Public School graduates in addition to an endowment at the University of Michigan. Our approach was a little different. Rather than try to start a K-8 school, a K-5 school, or even an at-capacity high school, we started with just one class of 120 ninth-graders. The next year, we added another class of 120 students, and another the year after. And this past year, we reached a major milestone and had our first graduating class. This growth allowed us to build our culture from the ground up. It also allowed us to focus on the students’ individual needs.
JRLA is an open enrollment, tuition-free public charter high school. We don’t have entrance exams or specific retention requirements. So yes, we are getting students in the ninth grade, a majority of whom aren’t doing math or reading at a ninth-grade level. You could have been kicked out of middle school, but we’ll say, “Come on in!” We are giving these kids an opportunity — and it works. For what it’s worth, all you can go by — all these kids have been able to go by — is what they’re exposed to in their neighborhoods. And from that vantage point, it’s hard for them to see what else is out there.
Growing up, all I knew were my neighborhood schools, like Cooley and Mumford, where a lot of my friends went. Some never graduated high school and most never made it to college. Luckily for me, my mom pushed for me to go to Southwestern High School. I took two buses to get there, but it opened my eyes. I also played for Super Friends AAU, an inner-city team in Detroit, and we got a chance to practice at Detroit Country Day. This school was unreal — one of the most prestigious in the country. The 45-minute drive out there as a little kid in those vans was almost like going on a road trip. I remember one trip, we were riding along the two lane street next to Cass Lake. I looked to my left and people were boating and jet-skiing! Boating and jet-skiing! In Detroit! I told myself that day, Whatever these people do for a living, and however they stay out here in this neighborhood, this is what I want for me and my future.
So once these students see there’s possibility, that a level playing field can be established, it’s like Biggie Smalls said, “We’re kicking in the door.”
Detroit needs help, but more importantly, it needs people who have influence and the ability to do something to speak up. Between the Flint water crisis and the ongoing teacher strikes, I wish I saw greater accountability — greater public outcry for the devastation that’s taking place.
I think about the thousands of kids who are not able to go to school because of the “sick-outs” and the poor conditions in Detroit’s public schools. It only makes the work we are doing at JRLA that much more important. JRLA went from being just a feel-good endeavor, to a necessary one. Because without JRLA, where would our 400-plus students end up?
So how is JRLA working? Well, let me give you some more numbers. We are off to a very strong start having graduated more than 90 percent of our scholars and having sent more than 90 percent off to college, technical school or the military. We have a college success team that provides continued support during college so we can achieve our mission of not only high school graduation, but college graduation — outcomes that are real game-changers in urban education. Our kids go to school for 11 months out of the year, which includes college programs and internships in July. I never grasped the concept of kids getting out of school in June and hoping they’ll retain whatever they’ve learned until September.
At the end of the day, I can spout numbers and statistics and whatnot, but I’m a competitive guy. Like, really competitive. I appreciate all we’ve accomplished in our first four years, but I haven’t truly celebrated just yet because we still have a ways to go. Don’t get me wrong, having our first graduating class last year was amazing. But I’m still thinking about bridging the education gap and what’s next. And that’s getting these kids a state-of-the-art facility, or helping our scholars get scholarship money. Because for most of them, they can’t send that tuition bill home.
Being the founder and board chair of a public charter school is time consuming, but this is the commitment that I’ve made. I’m on the phone weekly with our superintendent and principal, and no longer than a month goes by before I’m back walking the school hallways. In the summer, I’m there on a daily basis. Just like when I haven’t been to my mom’s house in two weeks, it is the exact same thing when I go to the school. I’m walking around making notes: We need to repair this door. What’s going on with the lights in the auditorium? How are our scholars progressing? I’m saying hello to the kids in the morning. I’m talking to the parents when they pick the kids up in the afternoon. I’m talking to the happy parents, talking to the unhappy parents.
There’s no fanfare or surprise when the students meet me. I’m close with the students and it’s my responsibility to be an outlet for them. So yes, I’m in the halls, hearing what’s going on. How you feeling? What’s going on with your ACT score? What’s up with these detentions? What’s going on with your demerits? Good job on being a top-10 student of the quarter.
So what this all means is just giving these students the chance to compete with others who can afford a private school or live in a better school district. Especially since they’ll rise to the challenge when presented the opportunity. It’s unfortunate that the quality of your education is based on your zip code. What about those who can’t just get up and move to a good district with a better public school?
Like I said, 48235 is the number that has probably determined more in my life than anything else. But hopefully through the work we’re doing, those numbers — 48235 and $7,200 — no longer have to define these students or their futures.
For more information on JRLA and ways to support its efforts, please visit www.JRLADetroit.com.