Jalen Rose was 12 years old when he saw how the other half lived, riding in a van with his childhood hoops squad, the Superfriends, to Detroit Country Day for practice.
“I look off to my left, and there’s a lake called Cass Lake, and I’m like, hold on, they boatin’ and jet skiin’ in Detroit?” Rose tells Dime. “Like that’s happenin’? Like, whoa! I didn’t know that was goin’ on,” Rose recalls while speaking with Dime over the phone last week. “I’m like 12 — and by the way, I’m from the Great Lakes state. But I had never really been exposed to that. I ain’t see that. I ain’t know that was happenin’. I’m like, wait a minute it’s three in the afternoon and they’re [on the lake]? I’m like yo, I need that.”
It’s a story that sticks out because it was one of the first times Rose realized that where you live can define your dreams, goals, and opportunities, something he’s been determined to try and change for Detroit kids for more than two decades.
In 2000, he started the Jalen Rose Foundation with a focus on helping youth, eventually creating a scholarship endowment that helped send five kids from Detroit to the University of Michigan every year. After eight years, Rose wanted to find a way to spread that impact to more kids, and began kicking around the idea of starting a school. He drew inspiration from a CNN segment with Dr. Steve Perry, who started Capital Preparatory Schools in Connecticut.
“I was just watching TV, and I was fascinated that he was the principal and the bus driver,” Rose says. “I was like, hold on, so the principal is picking up the students on the bus? I was like, alright. And then, Detroit had a scarcity of schools because of [white] flight. When I grew up in Detroit when I was young, we probably had 1.5-2 million people, as a population. Well now we have 600,000 or so. One of the things that started to happen is schools were closing. So, I realized that, wait a minute, the quality of somebody’s education is defined by their zip code. People that have more money get better education. The people in the suburbs don’t get the same money that the kids in the inner city get.
Oh, what is the reason? Because they pay more in taxes. Got it, that’s an indirect version of gentrification.
How can I do more? And I was watching the news and I saw that Detroit had a scarcity of schools, in particular high schools. And what ends up happening is people who usually start schools deal with the younger population, because they’re easier. They have parental involvement, parental punishment if they do something, their parents gonna wake him up, make sure they get to school or not get to school, and they haven’t been jaded by society and the system. So they haven’t started with sex. They haven’t been exposed to drugs or violence. They don’t have a voice yet, so they become the easier group to influence. So, in Detroit, people were starting schools, but they were doing it only for the young kids because the high school demo was the toughest one to get money from the state.”
This represented a challenge to Rose, who wanted to prove that he could start a charter high school that would help students compete with their suburban and private school counterparts. The result was the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, which he founded with Michael Carter in 2011, as an open enrollment, 9-16 model that provides assistance for students (who are determined by a lottery rather than selection based on application) beyond their high school graduation and into whatever secondary educational path they choose to take. For Rose, that last part was important, as he knew the success of the school would be incumbent on providing opportunities for students beyond what traditional institutions do, because they so often fail to account for the needs of the individual kid.
Where the JRLA’s mission differs from some other charter schools is how it takes a more tailored approach and understands the realities of the challenges their students have and will face from systems in place. Rose didn’t want to come in and instill a mandate that every JRLA graduate go off to a four-year college. Instead, he hoped to make it a place that supports students on whatever path they choose, whether it be a university, community college, or trade school, all while giving them the best opportunity to pursue a career where they can support their families.
“The young people want to be successful. They want to be game changers in their families in their communities,” Rose says. “They just don’t have the love, the support, and the guidance to put them in position to chase their goals and dreams. That’s what we’re trying to provide, and society tries to paint a picture that we’re not successful if we don’t graduate from Harvard, right? We’re not successful if we don’t graduate from Princeton. But what happens is when I’m getting ninth graders, they’re reading and doing math at a sixth or seventh grade level. So imagine me being Jalen Rose walking into a room of educators and telling them — and this was my thought my idea, my baby. I am not starting the school with four hundred kids, 9-12 grade, promising these 10th and 11th graders that’s reading at a sixth grade level that I’m gonna get them to college. Flat out, I’m not doing that, because I now become the system failing them again.”
JRLA couldn’t be about selling an unattainable dream, but elevating what these kids’ realistic opportunities are. Pushing every kid to a four-year university without continued support would be, undoubtedly, setting some up to fail. Instead, they need to show the various paths you can take to being a successful person and that it isn’t just about where you graduate from or what you do for a living, but that you’re able to have the skills to find a career and change it as you continue forward in life. Rose wants his school to support his students dreams, but also prepare them for the alternatives.
“Make sure that each young person finds what you just say, a tree, a path of a secondary interests, besides their dream or their goal,” Rose says. “So, let’s say Jalen’s goal is to be in the NBA, you should also create a second path. Because while we think that we’re going to have one job the rest of our lives, that’s inaccurate. That will never happen for anybody. So not only are we putting the young people on the path to be educated, but we’re also putting them on the path to be able to take care of themselves and those that they love.”
Rose was reminded of this recently, as he was sorting through things at his mother’s house after she passed earlier this year. When he had a junk removal service come to help take some stuff from the house, one of the guys that showed up to help was a JRLA graduate.
“One of them is a white gentleman probably like in his 40s. The second one was a JRLA graduate. He had his truck, had his clipboard, was professional. He made me so proud,” Rose says. “But what now happens is society tries to govern what we do and only again try to make it like success stories happen when they graduate from elite colleges, when success stories for inner city kids is putting themselves on a path to do something with their lives that’s in a positive.”
There’s no one version of success for Rose when it comes to those stories.
“I’ve seen my students work at Wingstop, I’ve seen my students work at Chase Bank, you can do more than one thing,” he continues. “This idea — we always sit around and say what we want to do for a living, but you’re not allowed to just have one job your whole life. It doesn’t work like that. And your dream job may just not be available yet. So, what are you going to do to take care of yourself in the process? I always say, life changes for young people, when all of your bills are in your name. That’s when it gets real. That’s when life changes.”
For Rose, when he looks back on a decade of the JRLA, he’s most proud that they’ve created something lasting that provides opportunity and support for kids in an area that so often aren’t afforded one.
“There’s nothing tougher than educating,” Rose says. “Teachers, to me, are the hardest working, most underpaid, taken for granted group of human beings walking the face of the earth. Not only are they tasked with educating your kid, but they’re also tasked with nurturing, and a lot of ways, babysitting your kid because they’re at school, eight hours a day. So what I’m most proud of is we set up an infrastructure that’s a safe learning environment in the community that has become a pathway of success for so many different young people at various degrees.”
Those things are paid forward in ripple effects that go well past an individual student. By reinvesting in the community, there’s no limit to the compounded impact of such an infrastructure.
“I look at the young person that graduates from Michigan equal to the young person that takes a trade, or has a job, or is doing what they choose to pursue in order to take care of themselves,” he continues. “Because they could be sticking a gun in somebody’s face or making the wrong decisions. And so, to me, that’s the thing that I’m most proud of, and how we did it.”