Dominique Lee Helps Public Schools Get Ahead

Dominique Lee Helps Public Schools Get Ahead

Last week, we wrote about an alumni-run non-profit called Arbor Brothers–an organization that gives grants and consulting services to groups looking to solve a root cause of poverty.

One such group that has partnered with Arbor Brothers is the New Jersey-based BRICK Academy. Founded by alumnus Dominique Lee, ’07, BRICK helps turn around failing public schools in New Jersey.

The Cost of Education

“..If we are spending $20,000 for this child to go from kindergarten all the way through the ninth grade every year and they can only read at a third grade reading level, there is something obviously going wrong with these schools.”

 After Dominique graduated, he joined Teach for America and was placed at a high school in the south ward of Newark, New Jersey. According to Dominque, this area is among the worst when it comes to generational poverty. He saw the culture of the area, and education didn’t score as a top priority. When, according to Dominique, a high-schooler is still reading at a third-grade level, there is little you can do to prepare them for college. 

Seeing an opportunity to make a positive impact, Dominique rounded up fellow Teach for America alums to found BRICK–Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids.

 How BRICK Works

“He listened to us, liked our idea and concept, which was to basically transform chronically failing schools by bringing the best practices from traditional public and charter schools into these schools.”  

Dominique wanted to get down to the elementary level and start making changes. The superintendent of Newark Public Schools gave BRICK the worst-performing school in Newark to work with. Dominique and his team focus on four core competencies to turn things around.

  • Team Leadership: When a school is failing, pretty much every system is failing with it. Training a team of individuals lets every process improve simultaneously. 
  • Teacher Empowerment and Quality: This is where you get the most bang for your buck. Most research shows that if you have a dynamic, amazing teacher that knows how to teach, you can change it.  
  • Tailored Student Support: Students in failing public schools often come from generations of poverty, and have varied academic, as well as social, abilities. Classrooms focus on a rotation that maximizes the learning value for each student.
  • Community and Family Partnerships: Students go from school back home, and Dominique says the two cannot be separated. They take their “toxic stress” to school with them. So a large part of Dominque’s mission is to stabilize families. 

The Results

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of sleepless nights… Sadly enough, sometimes in the education reform debate, we think of these one-shot solutions.”

Those sleepless nights are starting to pay off for Dominique and his team. In English/Language Arts, the school has gone from 18 to 47 percent passing rates. There is something called the scaled score, which scales the averages of all the student’s grades. It takes 200 to pass, and they have improved from 150 to 175. According to Dominique, “the kids are getting smarter and there are a lot of indicators that show we are in a positive trajectory.” One indicator is BRICK taking on another school, increasing their total impact to 1,500 students. This school boasts a student growth percentile that puts them near the top of Newark.

Dominique doesn’t sugar-coat his work. He recognizes only having 50 percent of students passing English isn’t acceptable in the long term, and is ready to keep working. He sees many students leaving the area, and the schools can struggle with daily attendance. By continuing their efforts in the community and family, these last two issues can hopefully improve.

Dominique  is ready to continue BRICK’s efforts. “It’s not work, it never feels like work, it’s just a life passion,” he says. “Children born into extreme poverty usually are not given options, so it is our responsibility to make sure that they have options.”  

In his inaugural address, President Schlissel emphasized U-M’s responsibility as a public institution. “Talent is uniformly distributed across the populace,” he said. “Opportunity most certainly is not.” It’s a sentiment Dominque agrees with.

“He is 100 percent correct on that. The Michigan Difference can make a difference in the world.”

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