It’s a Friday morning in late August—just weeks from the beginning of the new school year—but Dominique Lee is cool and calm as he sits across a table at BRICK Academy headquarters and speaks in quiet, measured tones.
But beyond this moment in time, there is a movement and a mission—one that Lee has built on passion, unwavering dedication and the belief that he can help navigate the change that is needed in the lives of so many of Newark's young people.
Lee is the founder and Executive Director of BRICK—Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids--an umbrella organization made up of Avon and Peshine academies, the South Ward Children’s Alliance (SWCA), and now, Lee's latest endeavor, Achieve Community Charter School, a K-8 school that will open to 66 students in grades K-1 this fall.
The school is currently housed at the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in the city's West Ward.
Brick and Peshine, which Lee describes as “hybrid” schools—both academies are partnerships between Lee and Newark Public Schools—were founded by Lee in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and serve close to 1500 kids in the South Ward.
At the heart of BRICK is the belief that investing in children at every stage of their lives will lead to college, career and a successful future.
The SWCA, which provides services for children and families from birth through college and career, was founded by Lee in order to establish a two-generation model--a cradle-to-career educational pipeline that gives young people and their parents access to a quality of life that ensures academic and lifelong success.
Lee, who is a graduate of the University of Michigan, began his career in education after he was accepted into Teach for America--a national corps of leaders who commit to teaching in low-income schools--and later taught at Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School.
“I entered education because I believe that the single one way to break the cycle of adversity for black and brown people is through education,” Lee said. “I always wanted to fight for this cause. We take addressing external factors that impede the success of our children very seriously. For many of our students, their home life is impeding them from getting to the next level," he said, noting the extreme poverty that many young people face.
Growing increasingly frustrated at how far behind his students were in reading and other subjects, Lee led the formation of BRICK, an education management nonprofit dedicated to education reform.
According to Lee, children and their parents must have access to high quality early childhood programs and services. In addition, countering the high prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, hunger and homelessness, is crucial to ensuring academic achievement.
BRICK Academy schools serve a vulnerable population—the majority of students live in extreme poverty, with less than a $10,000 annual income for a family of four. In addition, BRICK students are exposed to traumas, such as violence and sexual abuse, at a higher rate than the general population.
At the core of Lee’s mission is his belief that each child needs and deserves the best education, strong family units and a safe, healthy community in order to succeed as adults.
With this mission in mind, Lee set to work, gathering a group of talented educators, administrators and partners and formed BRICK.
“I wanted to create a successful elementary-level school in order to prepare these kids for high school,” said Lee. “These kids were reading at third or fourth grade level,” he said of his former high school students.
According to Lee, BRICK Achieve will be heavily geared towards preparing students for a new economy and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in an era of technology. This includes working towards making computer science a core subject.
“The 21st century requires schools to transform themselves,” Lee said. “In order for us to be innovative, we need to adjust our model to prepare our kids. I believe that Common Core is a floor—we’re just building on it.”
The Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English/Language Arts literacy.
The school will also offer a full music and arts program, along with after-school programming.
Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason said that the NCSF is honored to support Lee and BRICK Achieve Community Charter School.
“Dominique has an outstanding track record of working collaboratively and creatively in Newark to provide public education options that nurture the talents of our children and meet the needs of Newark families,” Mason said. “The opening of BRICK Achieve marks the next step in the development of BRICK’s blended model of public schools that are deeply rooted in our community.”
Mason noted the solid partnerships that Lee has created.
“BRICK has been a good partner to Newark Public Schools and to Newark’s charter school community,” she said. “BRICK Achieve is the third school in the BRICK network and their first public charter school as they lead the way in finding creative ways to respond to the needs of Newark’s children and families. We look forward to BRICK’s continued service to the Newark community and the success of BRICK Achieve.”
Talented teachers are at the root of success in the classroom, said Lee. Each classroom will have two teachers—a core teacher and a teacher-in-training—and students will get individual and personalized instruction.
“We want to provide our kids with innovator’s DNA,” Lee said. "We want our students to make connections across different subjects. How do we continue to build our kids for this new economy if we don’t, as a nation, get people ready for this new economy?”
According to Lee, he is more dedicated than ever to addressing these issues in light of the Trump administration, and believes that education reform is the new civil rights movement of our time.
“If we don’t address this, we’ll continue to see racial strife,” he said. “We’re part of a civic structure and we need to prepare our kids for the future of our democracy. We’ve been able to bring more people out of poverty than any other country.”
Achieve Principal Christopher Perpich, formerly the chief executive officer at BRICK, said the goal of the school mirrors the core mission of all of BRICK’s endeavors—fostering growth and creating an environment in which educators meet each individual student at his or her own level.
"We meet kids where they are," Perpich said. "We're committed to serving our students and responding to the needs of families. We're committed to the two-generation approach; you have to support the student but you also have to support the family."
Perpich said the focus will be on personlized instruction.
"We've established a schedule that's responsive to that," Perpich said.
Teachers will also be provided with the tools they need to create and prepare thoughtful and focused lesson plans, said Perpich, which is something that is often missing at other schools.
“Teachers need the time and structure to be excellent teachers,” Perpich said, who noted that Achieve teachers will be given two hours of planning time each day. “They will deliver better lessons and move kids faster.”
SWCA Executive Director Barbara Dixon said that social services act as the arm of all BRICK schools.
“We support our children, and there are a few components to this,” Dixon said.
Comprehensive case management is one part of the equation, said Dixon, in which the SWCA helps families in crisis situations.
“If a family is facing eviction or are low on food, we help with that,” Dixon said. “There are many barriers to academic achievement, so we act as outside services to help support families. We want to help families in crisis and beyond the crisis.”
Community empowerment workshops are also offered, as well as parenting education programs.
“We want families to know the importance of early education,” she said. “We want students to be successful in school. Research shows that kids can’t be successful if parents aren’t involved in the conversation. Not only are we supporting families, but we are also trying to build community.”
According to Lee, the SWCA has formed partnerships with social service providers to help provide access to housing, health services and financial assistance.
In addition, BRICK Academy schools regularly host parent education workshops, connect with community leaders, hold door-to-door outreach campaigns and strategically partner with social service agencies to help stabilize its most vulnerable families.
Lee believes that it is through the two-generation model of caring that the cycle of poverty can finally be broken.
“We have to start breaking down silos between education, the housing authority and health services,” Lee said. “And we need to be more in the 21st century in order to alleviate poverty. Our systems don’t do that right now.”