Capital Gains

A gift from a local philanthropist may save some of Madison's youth

It's not often that I am left speechless.

This past month, a Madison woman did something that robbed me of both words and breath. It was all I could do not to bellow the flabbergasted exclamation of late baseball announcer Jack Buck when Kirk Gibson once delivered the Dodgers from the brink. “I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST SAW!!!!”

For a year now, rather than observe, I have joined an embattled cause. Stepped up with a growing group of Madison folks from broad and diverse racial, economic and political backgrounds to search for a new solution to a tough problem.

It is, in fact, Madison’s toughest problem.

The challenge? How to close the academic achievement gap and stop the slow, steady decline of human potential in our low-income, minority community. Each day we are losing children to the hopeless side of the community ledger. When they fail to find their way it hurts them and costs us all.

Some of these kids, mostly young black men, become lost forever.

And Madison suffers as the problem grows and white families flee to Waunakee.

The Urban League and its smart, driven leader Kaleem Caire have led the way on a college-prep middle and high school designed specifically to deal with the issues that young men of color and poverty must overcome to achieve. Caire, who grew up in Madison, knows all too well how these young men feel. He was one of them. And now, fed by a growing fixed underclass migrating to Madison for a better life, the problem is far worse. Mr. Caire is crazy enough to think that his hometown of Madison is small and smart enough to create new educational methods that can work for these kids, and then be exported to broader educational systems.

Imagine that.

The attempt to improve things has not been easy. Already beleaguered by a new and controversial governor, the bureaucratic status quo has been in no mood to innovate. At times, the charter school deliberations have felt more like a trial than a public hearing. New ideas are disruptive. Resources are tight. Change is difficult. And, like any life form, a bureaucracy’s first reflex is to protect itself.

There is also the default position for many: blame. Parents, teachers, schools, administration, sexism, unions, white folks, black folks—the chastise list is long. But finger pointing and bad history do nothing to solve the problem.

Enter Mary Burke.

Not unusual for Madison, the star of this movie is not a hero, but a heroine. For all the blustering men in town, the most interesting and successful entrepreneurs in Dane County are women. Witness Pleasant and Judith.

Mary, of the Burke Trek clan, is another alpha female. She did something remarkable.

After observing developments, she stepped forward and pledged $2.5 million to lighten the resource load for the Madison school district and make Madison Prep work. Her gift will go to pay teachers and staff who are willing to work with kids who need it most.

Generous checks are great. Bless the folks who write them. But Ms. Burke’s gift has an even more powerful aspect that is a quiet, subtle thing. People of means often prefer to invest in bricks and mortar. Art museums, college buildings, concert halls. Like bishops building cathedrals, these gifts have heft and predictability. They are guaranteed by granite to last eons.

But Mary Burke is not investing in a huge building to house Madison Prep. She chose a different investment, a softer, more vulnerable play. When you thank her it will be a good thing to remember.

Mary invested in people.

Madison people. Not real estate, but our human capital.

Large buildings are fine and necessary. But when folks talk to me about this issue I refer to my Chicago days. The single most powerful theater in Chicago is a warehouse with cheap tables and chairs. It’s called Second City. Despite its lack of opulence, it’s generated more entertainment revenue than any room in the Midwest. That is because the room is rich with human energy, passion and talent.

And that is where Mary Burke made her bet.

She didn’t bet on a building.

She bet on us.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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