Something special is brewing within New Jersey’s public education system. Former Newark, New Jersey, public school teacher and founder and chief executive officer of Building Resilient Intelligent Creative Kids (BRICK) Education Network, Dominique Lee recently took a leap of faith that no one before him has done. He is now the first and only African American to lead a charter management organization in the state. Under Dominique’s leadership, Marion P. Thomas Charter School (MPTCS) has joined the BRICK Education Network (BEN).
With the new addition of MPTCS, BEN will serve over 2,700 students between the following schools: Achieve Clinton Hill Charter School, MPTCS PAC Academy, MPTCS STEAM Academy, MPTCS High School of Culinary and Performing Arts, and the South Ward Children’s Alliance.
MPTCS has strong roots within the New Jersey community as it was founded by members of one of Newark’s oldest churches—the New Hope Baptist—which boasts a 20-year history of educating Newark children. Together, with Dominique’s passion of closing the achievement gap along with his five co-founders, a new model of action has begun to address the unique needs of black and brown children. BEN is “Breaking down walls. Building up kids.”
To learn more about this historic feat, I sat down with Dominique for a Q&A.
Dominique, what does it mean to lead New Jersey’s first and only CMO led by a person of color? What example do you hope to set?
It is truly humbling to know that we are the first in the state of New Jersey. I catch myself many times asking if this is really happening. It means a lot to be helping with the fight towards equity in education. I am just another individual that is chopping at the iceberg of bigotry and using my strength, spirit, and mind to ensure that people of color have a seat at the table and the ability to create their own tables. I hope to be an example like the many individuals that I look up to who have devoted their lives to the mission of fighting for equity.
What role have people of color played in the national charter school movement and in New Jersey?
People of color have always started their own schools and created choice for our people—from newly freed Black people who created schools after the Civil War during Reconstruction to the recent Afro-centric school movement—historically we have always taken our own destinies into our hands. Many people forget that choice has always been part of the African American community. It is just sad that our past and present choice movements led by people of color have been overlooked and disinvested in by a system that does not value our accomplishments, similar to how black artists’ music was stolen in the past.
How does your experience as a former Newark public school teacher play into your new role?
The experience you gain from operating a district public school turnaround is probably the best you can gain as an educator. The experience truly taught me the importance of humility, building systems, and constantly innovating to meet the needs of the students. It also taught me to look at a student and/or family member with an eye of spiritual empathy to understand the "why." There is always a story behind a situation and that story usually involves a system of structural racism that prevents our communities from living out their dreams. The experiences that I went through in the public school system have truly given me a firm foundation in understanding the importance of designing schools to meet a variety of needs of students.
How was BEN able to turn two of the lowest ranking district schools in the state to some of the highest in Newark for student growth percentile?
With a lot of hard work and the support from the students and parents. We also learned from some of the best schools across the United States and curated best practices and brought them back to inform our model to meet the needs of our students. Throughout our experience, we walked with humility which allowed us to listen to others.
What does this merger mean for the education landscape in New Jersey and the overall charter school movement?
MPTCS joined the BEN network under its management. By joining forces, it allows us to maximize our capital and intellectual resources to meet the needs of our students and families. It is important that we see people of color in leadership positions and we hope to be an example.
What are some common misconceptions individuals have about charter schools in New Jersey? How do you hope to change this?
For some odd reason, there are misconceptions around charter schools that are pushed by special interests. We fail to understand that the roots of charter schools come from the Reconstruction period in American history. African Americans created schools outside the traditional public system because the system was not going to serve us. Therefore, we applied to the Freedmen's Bureau to open our own schools designed to meet the needs of our communities. I hope to continue to enhance the positive message of charter schools and how they empower our communities to meet the needs of our students by being one of the leaders.
Can you explain the upcoming school year theme of ‘One Mission, Many Faces. 2,768 reasons!’?
This was a historic year for BEN. With the addition of MPTCS to the BEN network it was important for us to signify to the staff the unity we have around our mission which is to serve the people to the best of our ability. No matter where you are within the network or your job title, we are ALL responsible for serving 2,768 students and community members to the best of our extent.
What advice would you give to other leaders of color who want to lead CMOs?
Make sure you understand yourself and have a solid core—the road is hard and will be extremely lonely. If you don't have those two fundamental things, it will be hard to lead any CMO or better yet run any non-profit designed to serve people.
Dominique Lee is the founder and chief executive officer of the BRICK Education Network. Dominique was recently honored by the National Alliance with the Charter School Leadership Awards, recognizing African American charter school leaders and advocates who are spearheading the movement to give parents and students high-quality public school opportunities.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.