Since we’re in back-to-school mode, and I’m fresh off welcoming students back to Jalen Rose Leadership Academy after a year of virtual teaching, I wanted to dedicate an episode of “Renaissance Man” to someone who has inspired me in the education game. A decade ago, I started my charter school in Detroit.
Previously, I had been giving scholarship money and started an endowment at the University of Michigan, but about 15 years ago, I saw a segment on CNN about education advocate Dr. Steve Perry, founder of Capital Prep charter schools, and it would end up changing my own charitable focus. He did it all. He was the founder, the chief fund raiser and the bus driver. A natural disruptor in the education space, he was like Crazy Joe Clark in “Lean on Me,” with one exception: He didn’t carry a bat.
I was intrigued. At the time, I was working in Bristol, Conn., so I went to his school in Hartford. We hit it off, and he’s become a mentor and a friend.
Dr. Perry is self-made, and his origin story is much like that of the inner-city kids he serves.
“I grew up in public housing,” Dr. Perry told me. “I was born on my mother’s 16th birthday. My father was in prison by the time I was 18 … You know, I was bad at school. I remember first time somebody in college called me ‘intellectual.’ I was like, ‘Yo, say it again.’ I swear — I thought that they were being disrespectful to me … I always thought I was unintelligent. I was in Outward Bound when I was in high school. They sent us to this ‘hoods in the woods’ program, where they send you out and they scare you into like, ‘This could be your life if you don’t get your life right.’”
The Connecticut native said he wasn’t a bad kid, but he wasn’t in the best environment. He played sports, but at 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, he wasn’t going pro. He also had the option of hustling and slinging dope, which included a lot of standing around in the cold, and that didn’t suit him. But, he knew he wasn’t built for the consequences of that life.
Instead, he was inspired by his mother’s activism in the tenants’ association where they lived.
“I want to do something,” Dr. Perry told himself, assuming it would be politics. He even ran for office, but like Goldilocks trying to find what’s just right, he found the sweet spot in education. And boy, has he made a mark. Not only does Capital Prep now have five schools — with Dr. Perry opening the latest in The Bronx with Diddy — he is also a consultant to people such as Oprah, Steve Harvey and yours truly. He’s a generational change-maker and a maverick with a lot of grit who has taken on the powers that be.
He is a staunch advocate of school choice, and giving different options other than what kids’ ZIP codes dictates. He said education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but there is a reality that exists in politics and public education. Most of his students are black and Latino, and most black and Latino politicians are Democrats, who are controlled by the teachers unions. The teachers unions are extremely powerful. And not empowering to the students who most need them.
“The unions tell [Democratic politicians] what to do, and they do what they’re told to do almost unilaterally. The teachers union in particular — which is … at least 85 percent white and an overwhelmingly female group of people — they tell the black and Latino politicians what to say, when to say it, how to say it. One of the things that they tell them to say is that they are for ‘public education.’ They dress this pig up and call it the prom queen, because it’s not public education. It is something that has been privatized by the teachers union itself. Meaning these white women, for the most part, who live in the suburbs, for the most part, benefit completely off the backs of black and Latino children.”
Most of these politicians, he noted, send their kids to schools of choice, meaning a charter, private or Catholic school.
He wanted to give every family that choice. And a chance. Even if it was outside the realm of traditional schooling controlled by the teachers union. Athletes get to choose, why not a student who doesn’t run a blistering 40-yard dash?
“If you look at the NBA, NFL, none of those brothers went to the neighborhood schools, and we think that that’s perfectly fine. We think it’s perfectly fine to send all these kids literally all over the country, hundreds, thousands of miles away from their families just so they can run and catch a ball. Yes, but if that child wants to go to a STEM school in the next town, in the next district … it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’”
After working on JRLA for this long, I’ve learned that people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. Dr. Perry treats his students like his own and gives them tough love. He wants them to be well-rounded and have a few skills in their back pockets. One example is former student Andre Drummond, who was drafted ninth overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2012.
“Andre will tell you this … In his freshman year of high school, like his first four games, he had one point. First time he went to dunk, he fell down. He fell on his back. So he came to [Capital Prep], and I told his mother, ‘I will treat him as my own. You can rest assured.’ And I remember having a conversation with him and saying, ‘Son, sorry. I don’t know if this basketball thing’s going to work.’”
Dr. Perry didn’t take Andre under his wing because he thought he was going to be in the NBA. “It’s because I knew that he’s a beautiful young man who deserves the opportunity to be whatever God makes him to be,” he said.
Andre went to the Lakers and is now in Philadelphia with the 76ers, but when he was with the Pistons, he and his mother started supporting JRLA. They are in a completely different city now, but they are still donors, because they have experienced the benefit of school choice firsthand.
Yes, Dr. Perry is passionate about kids and learning. But he also is a sharp-dressed, cool dude who’s funny, irreverent and can relate to his student body. He walks their walk and talks their talk. He gets emotional when he watches “Lean on Me,” and I imagine he sings “Fair Eastside High” in the shower. He also cuts his own hair, which I will never do unless I go bald at some point, which is not in my five-, 10- or 20-year plan.
“It goes back to being broke. I needed a haircut,” he said, adding that he’d use his grandfather’s old shaver. “Now, keep in mind, I busted my head a bunch of times. I used my mother’s eyeliner more than a few times.” While a student at the University of Rhode Island, he cut the basketball team’s hair, because in southern Rhode Island there weren’t many black barbers around. So if he ever tires of his charter school calling, he can always fall back on his clippers.
But Dr. Perry is also human. He has his flaws. He can be very controversial. For instance, he thinks Johnny Gill was better in New Edition than Bobby Brown, which is blasphemy. There is no question who was more valuable to the group. So this is where we diverge, but otherwise, I will follow Dr. Perry anywhere: from the tailor to the barber’s chair to the classroom. That’s my guy.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.