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Dominique Lee is the CEO of BRICK Education Network, a community education development corporation based in Newark, New Jersey, that invests in children and their caregivers to relentlessly knock down all barriers to students’ academic success. BRICK was born out of Dominique’s deep motivation to create more academic opportunities for the predominantly Black and brown student population in the South Ward of Newark.
Motivation for change can be a complicated process or a simple desire to improve the lives and conditions of your community. In my experience as a Teach For America corps member, I saw brilliant children and great families’ pathways to success blocked by circumstances that were no fault of their own. That motivated me to create a system of change that would provide opportunities through education and family wellness in the South Ward area of Newark, New Jersey.
Since then, BRICK Education Network has been able to accomplish much more than I could have imagined. We are partnering with local health and wellness organizations to provide essential healthcare services, and are impacting educational outcomes on a daily basis at Achieve, our community charter school. I am proud to say that we have been able to create these opportunities for underserved communities of color.
BRICK is just one example of the wonderful changes that can happen when charter school networks and public school systems invest in their communities by installing and elevating leaders of color to run their schools. The joy of seeing students look up to me, my staff, and my teachers (86% of whom identify as people of color) during their formative years is unmatched. That kinship and bond go a long way in the development of children as productive members of society and the leaders and professionals of tomorrow.
It is important for students to see themselves reflected in their teachers and school leaders. As reported in an Education Week story published in 2022, students of color make up 53 percent of the public school population, yet 80 percent of teachers and administrators are white. That imbalance can have a damaging effect on the progress and success of students of color.
How can charter networks and school systems embrace and enact change? Here are a few ways:
Identify potential leaders of color
Making an honest and concerted effort to find Black teachers and Black administrators is an important step toward recruiting qualified candidates who are passionate about the work and the communities they serve.
Support their goals and ideas
Many Black teachers and administrators have experiences similar to the students they will educate. They have seen what works and what doesn’t. Giving them the opportunity to implement innovative educational practices, and create a healthy school environment without interference, will foster trust within the school community.
School leaders can only provide as much to the students as they themselves are given. Providing them with the resources they need to develop a new curriculum and create a healthy and whole environment for staff and students is the most important piece of the puzzle. This includes investing in mental health support, which is important now more than ever. In 2020, 12% of U.S. children ages 3 to 17 were reported as having ever experienced anxiety or depression. In order to reverse the trend, we as leaders must do our part.
As a Black educator, I know how it feels to be isolated from your peers. I can only imagine how Black and Brown students, who are often misunderstood because of implicit or unconscious bias, must feel on a daily basis. Children spend eight hours a day in school, and that time should be spent comfortably and in a familiar environment.
To that end, school systems and charter networks must be willing to accept change and be receptive to leadership outside of the status quo. Black children respond better when being taught and led by Black teachers and administrators who can relate culturally and emotionally. When families and communities of color have leaders they can relate to, success most often follows.
Black teachers and administrators are more than willing to step up to the plate and create positive change for Black students and communities. School systems and charter networks should be willing to trust that they will do the right thing and that the results, as evidenced by the success we’ve seen at BRICK, will follow.