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Helen Mazarakis has served as Chair of the Board of Trustees at BRICK Education Network since 2019 and a member of the Board of Trustees since 2016. BRICK, based in Newark, is the first and only African-American-led Charter Management Organization in New Jersey. BRICK’s mission is to relentlessly knock down all barriers to students’ academic success so they can have an unimpeded path to unlocking his or her limitless potential.
A once in a lifetime pandemic has shaken the world to its core. Every aspect of life has been disrupted and turned upside down. The most vulnerable among us have been impacted in countless ways. As we look toward recovering from this unprecedented pandemic, educational outcomes should be at the top of our list of priorities. One Charter Management Organization (CMO) – BRICK Education Network – is working to ensure education does not take a back seat to the pandemic.
I have been honored to serve on the organization’s Board of Trustees since 2016. During that time, I have seen first-hand the positive impact BRICK has had on families by breaking down barriers that impede a student’s path to unlocking their limitless potential.
In 2010, former Teach for America and Newark public school teacher Dominique Lee founded BRICK Education Network, the first and only African-American-led CMO in the state. Lee believes that closing the opportunity gap in communities of color is one of the ways to put the next generation of Black and Brown students on a level playing field. As nonprofit entities that manage charter schools, CMOs like BRICK can play a critical role in the country’s march towards equity. CMOs provide back office functions for charter schools to take advantage of economies of scale, but some also provide a wider range of services — from human resource functions, to finance and operations.
While BRICK started its journey by providing academic support to two traditional public schools in Newark, the organization quickly realized that academic support did not adequately address the obstacles students and their families face, such as struggling to maintain stabilized housing, healthy meals, adequate health services and other basic essential necessities. That is why BRICK created South Ward Promise Neighborhood (SWPN) in 2014 — to provide local families with services that are needed in order to help children in a holistic, student centered model. These needs have only increased during the pandemic. Whether it be providing financial assistance to prevent eviction, distributing ShopRite gift cards to prevent school insecurity, or partnering with Lyft to provide quality transportation options — SWPN is always available to help students and families facing difficult times.
Never losing its focus to provide a high-quality education to students who are often overlooked, BRICK established Achieve Clinton Hill Charter School in 2016. Achieve offers K-7th grade instruction in the city’s South Ward. BRICK implemented a successful, rigorous curriculum at Achieve. In the 2018/19 school year, Achieve boasted the second highest Student Growth Percentile (SGP) in math out of schools in the state of New Jersey. This year, Achieve was renewed by the New Jersey Department of Education for five more years and given the status of Tier 1 Academics, enabling Achieve to continue to make a difference in the community.
From 2019-2021, BRICK entered into a CMO agreement with Marion P. Thomas Charter Schools (MPTCS), overseeing its curriculum, social emotional program and back-office operations, including hiring, finance, school operations, data analytics, and public relations. Prior to BRICK entering into a CMO agreement with MPTCS, MPTCS had been dealing with negative publicity, disappointing test scores and a high suspension rate. Improvement was also needed in the areas of curriculum, culture, and talent. The BRICK team immediately rolled up its sleeves and partnered with the MPTCS community to turn the curve.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a historic shutdown of U.S. schools just six months into BRICK’s partnership with MPTCS, it made strong gains under BRICK’s leadership in a short period of time. The high teacher and administrative turnover decreased dramatically from 55 resignations in 2018-19 to just 14 in the 2020-21 school year – a strong indicator that the culture at MPTCS is changing. Enrollment also increased, resulting in MPTCS’ largest student population at 1,556. In addition, MPTCS’ student suspension rate decreased by 78%, going from 509 in 2017-18 to 109 in 2019-20.
It has been incredibly meaningful to be a part of an organization that is working toward equity in education. As board chair, I am proud to play a role in BRICK’s work to ensure people of color have a seat at the table and the ability to create their own tables.
While Newark is BRICK’s home and where the organization successfully implemented its holistic model in educating children, we are looking to expand our unique approach to help create a level playing field in other communities. We are excited to announce that plans are underway to open BRICK charter schools in Buffalo, New York in 2022-2023.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our daily lives at home, school and work. During this challenging time, BRICK has served as a resource for so many families, while continuing to focus on educating the next generation of leaders. By building upon their successful model in other schools, we will not only strengthen our communities, but we will create a brighter future for our children brick by brick.