Jalen Rose was frustrated. When he began his career in philanthropy in the early 2000s, the former U-M basketball legend and then-NBA pro plunged his own money into a namesake program that granted $10,000 college scholarships to qualified underprivileged students from his native Detroit.
But after eight years, he had managed to award only 38 scholarships, spending $380,000 without making the broader impact he envisioned. “I found myself reaching out to Detroit high schools, trying to get administrators on the phone, begging them to take my scholarship money so that I could give their students an opportunity to go to college,” Rose, x’94, says. “I realized there was a systemic problem.
“If he was going to make a more substantial difference for more students, he’d have to do something bigger, more dramatic. So, in the fall of 2011, he plunged hundreds of thousands of dollars—the exact figure has never been disclosed—into an open-enrollment charter high school on Detroit’s economically challenged northwest side. The focus: preparing students for their post-graduation lives. To date, some 450 graduates, who at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA) are called “scholars,” are responsible for the school’s 94% graduation rate, and another 400 are now enrolled. That, Rose says, is a much better return on investment.
“I have almost 900 kids, there’s no way around it,” Rose says proudly in an interview from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We’re getting young people out of their comfort zones, out of their community, and putting them in positions to open their eyes, open their imaginations, open their ears, help them with their problem-solving, their decision-making. That’s the work that we do. That’s what my commitment is. And that’s why it’s important to be hands on as much as I am.”
The path for Rose from basketball star to education reformer began, of course, when he and his fellow baggy-shorts-wearing Fab Five recruiting class took the Wolverines to the NCAA finals in 1992 and 1993. He left U-M after his junior year as a first-round draft pick for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the start of a 13-year, six-team pro career that ended with his retirement from the Phoenix Suns in 2007. Since then, he’s become perhaps ESPN’s most ubiquitous figure (“one could argue that no one is working harder than Jalen Rose,” Sports Illustrated wrote last year) as co-host of two daily shows, “Get Up!” and “Jalen & Jacoby.” During the pro basketball season, he also appears as an “NBA Countdown” analyst.
Rose tries to be objective as a media personality, except when it comes to U-M. He remains a dyed-in-the-Maize-and-Blue fan—those are JRLA’s school colors, too—and is especially tickled that fellow Fab Fiver Juwan Howard, ’97, is now the U-M men’s basketball head coach. Rose and Howard speak regularly, and Rose could even be seen on TV in the crowd at U-M’s win over Rutgers in New Jersey in February.
“I watch every dribble; I just happen to be an alum, and Juwan just happens to be my brother,” Rose says. “I’m extremely enthusiastic about the present and the future of Michigan basketball.”
The current success of JRLA is especially impressive given that, like many a season of U-M basketball, it started with some serious bumps. That first year, the school struggled due to an ambitious plan to require a 10-student maximum class size, and the second year began with the school’s third principal (the second was an interim) and an entirely new teaching staff.
But by 2013, Rose brought in a new “coach,” the nonprofit charter school management organization American Promise Schools, later renamed Promise Schools. Since then, test scores have soared and graduation rates have been high, with the first class of seniors matriculating in 2015. Last spring, U.S. News & World Report ranked JRLA as the third-best open-enrollment high school in Detroit based on college readiness levels, math and reading, proficiency, and college curriculum. The top rating reflected the strength of 25-student maximum class sizes and free daily after-school tutoring.
The school’s 120 seats per grade level are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. JRLA also now offers a Summer Learning Adventure Program, which provides scholars with internships and gives them access to college programs. What’s more, JRLA is currently ranked No. 1 amongst Detroit open-enrollment high schools for its college matriculation rate of 77%.
“It wasn’t easy early on, but now we are one of the most successful 9-through-16 models in the United States of America,” Rose says of education that extends beyond grade 12. “What that means is not only are we focused on graduating our scholars from high school and putting them in position to go to college, military or trade school, a community college, or a university, we’re also giving them moral and sometimes financial support while they’re in college. It’s not ‘walk across the stage; throw your hat in the air; and goodbye, congratulations, see you later.’”
Early on, Rose’s involvement in the school was more intensive—the Detroit Free Press wrote about him swooping into the city to take a particularly troubled student for lunch in an effort to set him straight—but nowadays he pops in at least once a month. While Jalen might not be physically present on a weekly basis due to his schedule, as president of the board, he is on a number of weekly calls and daily emails strategizing with the administrative team and board.
He is also useful as a prodigious fundraiser, says JRLA principal Wendie Lewis. The school receives about $8,000 from the state per pupil, and that doesn’t cover the cost of extracurricular activities or the school’s efforts to help its alumni stay in college. JRLA, which is housed in a former elementary school, has had to raise money for all of its physical renovations. So Rose headlines benefit events and persuades prominent people and organizations—Detroit Pistons icon Isiah Thomas, billionaire Pistons owner Tom Gores, and Chrysler’s charitable arm, among others—to give.
“His involvement has evolved as our needs have evolved,” says Lewis as she walks through a hallway featuring murals and photos that trace Rose’s career. “But he has always been about relationship building and being in this building to interface with the students.”
That’s not to say Rose is elusive to alumni of JRLA. For instance, he regularly reaches out to graduates who are struggling academically in college. “Just knowing that someone as prominent as Jalen still cares about your success after you’ve left, that he cares enough to shoot you an email and say, ‘Hey we’re rooting for you, we’d love to give you support, you can do this,’ does a lot for the morale of students who may feel a little bit defeated around finals time,” Lewis says.
“Mr. Rose remains a constant figure at JRLA,” says Chanelle Miles, ’19, who graduated from the school in 2015. “He proved to us that opening JRLA meant more to him than just having his name plastered across the signage outside. For me, he represents not only talking the talk but also walking the walk.”
Steve Friess is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a 2011-12 Knight-Wallace Fellow at U-M.
Editor’s note: A previous edition of this article incorrectly stated that the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy ran out of money after its first year. While it has to significantly fundraise each year to go above and beyond what a traditional public school provides and bridge the budget gap, it has a dedicated board that makes sure the school remains financially viable.