NEWARK, NJ - As Tyree Barnes walks the hallways of Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in Newark on a recent morning, he seems to know everyone by name: Students, educators, and school leaders.
Clad in a navy suit, white shirt and red tie, his stroll is punctuated by mini-stops to greet his fellow co-director, assure a roaming student has a hall pass or a quick crouch here-and-there to pick up a pencil or piece of paper from the floor.
The 30-year-old native Newarker is known as a vibrant, up-and-coming community leader who has catapulted himself from a business and marketing Rider University college graduate to the head of this middle school in just a few short years.
When asked where he would like to find himself next, Barnes nervously scratches the back of his head and initially responds with an “I don’t know.”
He follows up by saying that even if it meant opening a popular pizza shop in the neighborhood, he is content doing what can positively impact the community.
“I just want to be in a place where I can do the most good for the most people,” Barnes said. “When I’m in that place, I’m fine. I’m fine there.”
Barnes’ upbringing began less than two miles away from this Great Oaks Legacy campus, at three separate family shelters down the street -- the third child of six.
“Mom wasn’t working, dad wasn’t around,” Barnes said. “We struggled.”
When he was about 8 years old, Barnes said, his mother came to the tough determination that things were too much for her to manage. He and his younger brother were informally adopted by his godparents while his other brother was sent to live with another male figure, he said.
While his adoptive parents served as a hugely positive impact on his life -- “I have a debt to those people,” he said. “They really, really helped me.” -- he felt challenged by the notion of not living with his biological parents.
“You grow up feeling like ‘they gave me away,’” Barnes said.
But it was that struggle that partially influences the way Barnes approaches his role as co-director of the charter school, where he focuses on shaping students not just academically but also behaviorally and emotionally.
“Education is both of those things,” Barnes said. “Developing character and developing academics. Those two pieces have to go together.”
After graduating college in 2011, Barnes said he reached “complete closure” when, just before she passed away, his mother explained the difficult decision.
“She was able to explain that, ‘I needed to figure out how to make a better life for you guys and that was how I did it.'”
Barnes initially wanted to work a service program in Washington until his mother convinced him to look into his own community.
“My mom was very adamant about ‘you’re from Newark, there’s kids here that need your help,’” he said.
The Great Oaks Legacy Charter School was started in 2011, in a hallway of the former Burnet Street School serving grades 6-8. After merging with the Newark Legacy Charter School, it added grades Pre-K to 5th grade. The middle school’s current home, where Barnes is based, serves grades 5-8 with a focus on preparing students for college at a young age.
Prudence Minton, the school’s chief academic officer, has worked with Barnes since he began as a tutor at the school in 2012.
Minton said she first worked with Barnes under the Response to Intervention program where students are paired up with a teacher, a tutor and a school leader in an effort to support students behaviorally and academically.
Minton described Barnes as having a “relentless vision” with “natural chops” at adapting to teaching and education.
“Anything you just put in front of him just really excels,” Minton said.
For Minton, the combination of having kids learn in a traditional classroom setting and receive specialized tutoring is at the core of this charter school’s mission -- of which Barnes has had both experiences.
“The teacher is like the surgeon, they give the big delivery of instruction so to say, and the tutors are like the nurses doing the upkeep,” Minton said.
Barnes said he incorporates his own artistic talents to his role as a school leader. In addition to playing drums growing up, he releases his own songs online under the moniker, Black Genius, which he promotes around the school.
When students see the moniker, Barnes says it often sparks a conversation by students who wonder, simply, what it means to be a genius -- then watch them use that positive reflection on themselves.
“To see them referencing themselves as a genius, or a black genius or a brown genius, I think is impactful and powerful and will help direct them in their future,” Barnes said.