Winning Attitude

Former U-M and NBA star Jalen Rose tackles the challenges of funding a charter school

The images of Jalen Rose as a supremely gifted 18-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan are cemented in the minds of basketball fans: the baggy shorts, the black socks, the in-your-face bravado that depicted to the world he was impervious to failure.

Rose, along with his Fab Five teammates — Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson — took college basketball by storm in 1992 as the first college team to start five freshmen. The quintet spearheaded the Wolverines to back-to-back NCAA Finals appearances in 1992 and 1993, where they fell short both times.

Those were harsh blows to Rose, who now admits he was “irrationally confident” during that time. It was a mind-set forged as a kid while playing pickup basketball with several neighborhood friends on a milk crate nailed to a wooden light pole.

“I always believed I was a good ball player — maybe too much so,” the Detroit native recalls. “My belief was that I was going to be somebody, that I was going to make it to the NBA.”

Rose realized that dream when he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1994. He went on to spend 13 years in the league.

During the tail end of his playing days he started his television career — an endeavor that has elevated Rose to his current role as one of ESPN and ABC’s top NBA analysts.

Rose now occupies a role that grants him the opportunity to dissect the league he loves. But even though he’s now part of the media, Rose still believes many of its members have a singular opinion when it comes to judging athletes.

“The media look at professional athletes and say, ‘If you don’t win a championship, you’re a loser!’ ” he says. Having had championships elude him during his entire college and pro career, Rose is mindful of such a narrow-minded viewpoint. “Winning championships is about winning the score of the game,” he says. “I’d rather win the game of life.”

Winning, according to Rose, starts with a solid educational foundation. And he is committed to ensuring inner-city kids in the community from which he came receive that opportunity. Several years ago, he’d call various Detroit public schools offering college scholarships. Oddly, his gestures were met with indifference. He says he’d personally call schools multiple times offering money, yet would often receive only two or three applications from graduating classes numbering in the hundreds.

“I was frustrated,” he says. “There seemed to be a disconnect with the leadership at the schools, because there was no reason why we should’ve gotten so little feedback.”

Rose decided to take a more direct method of influencing kids. In September 2011, he opened the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA), an open enrollment charter high school in Detroit. School is in session 11 months out of the year, with eight-hour days, and the month of August off. A big incentive to attending this high school is the fact there is no homework — all course work is completed in school.

“I had to ask myself, ‘How can I be a positive influence and change the fortunes of a generation?’ ” he says. “The answer is to educate them. To open their hearts and minds to life’s possibilities. To put our arms around them, to be supportive, to show them we care [and] want them to have success.”

The school opened in 2011 with only ninth-graders, and an additional freshman class has been added each subsequent year. JRLA has almost 300 ninth- through 11th-graders this fall.

Rose’s efforts, however, come with a hefty price. “Nobody was standing behind me with a blank check, urging me to open the school,” he says.

While charter schools get funds from the state on a per-pupil basis, they do not receive money from a school district to purchase, lease, or improve facilities. So before the school officially opened, there were up-front costs: purchase, renovate, and bring the building up to code; hire staff and administrators; and start recruiting students. These were all activities mandated before the state would provide any funding.

Any monetary shortfalls were covered by Rose, who dipped into his own pocket seven-figures deep to ensure JRLA’s success. An expansion to the facility was also completed in August.

“I’m trying to create an inner-city Country Day or University Liggett,” he says. But that requires a year-round search for donations.

“I know that our donors are the key, and I’m just getting as comfortable as I need to be to ask for help,” he says.

Rose understands he is involved in a huge undertaking, but embraces the long-term benefits.

“I’m expecting my students to use this experience to achieve whatever goals and dreams they have in life,” he says. “I want them to be positive influences in the community and reach back to uplift the fortunes of those behind them like I’m trying to do. I’ll be happy with that.”