The Essence of Essence Prep: Cultivating Leading Agents of Change

essence prep students sharing | blog post about how essence prep addresses critical race theory

We are proud to present this guest post by Jennipha “Jae” Ricks, Chief Learning Officer and Principal at Essence Prep, dispelling myths about critical race theory and describing how Essence Prep will cultivate leading agents of change.

Racism is an “unrelenting pandemic that continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, ongoing roadblocks to obstruct efforts to expand the franchise and protect voting discrimination, and a growing movement to push anti-racist curricula out of schools” (Stanford University, 2022) according to Melissa De Witte, Deputy Director for Social Science Communications for the Stanford News Service. Interestingly enough, now, in 2022, we have Senate Bill 3, or the Critical Race Theory (CRT) Bill, that has been passed because CRT “has become a new bogeyman for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present” (Gibbons, 2022).

Critical Race Theory

According to the World Economic Forum (2022), Critical Race Theory (CRT) “tells a story about institutionalized racial disadvantage and systemic racial inequality and it examines how the legacy of slavery and segregation in the US is embedded in modern-day legal systems and policies.” Sawchuck (2022) stated that, “The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged from a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.” These renowned scholars brought CRT to the table to shed light on various systemic—and physical—attacks against the African American community. 

The point was to take a look at racism within America and challenge the injustices that routinely reared their ugly heads. The purpose behind specifically using the term “critical” was to provide context to the theory which is meant to make individuals think in a critical manner about a topic versus criticizing an individual, or an entire race. The scholars who founded this theory believed that CRT “tends to understand race as a creation of society, not a biological reality” (Fortin, 2021)

As a result of resegregation during the civil rights movement, the racial inequalities continued. The result of the inequities caused CRT scholars to begin revitalizing, or revamping, critical legal studies with a focus on economic structure and law. The goal was to take a deeper look at the role of the United States and how the laws perpetuate racism.

CRT was introduced to the field of education by Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate (1995), and before it got used as a political wedge by conservatives, it was really used by scholars to discuss ways to dismantle race-based inequities in policies, practices, curricula, and student outcomes. In regard to K–12 education in Texas, Senate Bill 3—or the CRT Bill—is a directive that has been given to educators:

[A] teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs;

[A] teacher who chooses to discuss a topic described by Subdivision (1) shall, to the best of the teacher ’s ability, strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

(emphasis added)

CRT was never initially designed to be a K–12 matter. The theory was founded and implemented at the collegiate level in 1970 by Derrick Bell as a scholarly movement (Delgado & Stefancic, 1998). However, there were individuals who took it upon themselves to make it a K–12 issue—from my perspective—as a way to silence the truth about the history of America. I know that we can all agree on the egregious behaviors and acts that took place in the past; the steps that have been taken are in effect to slap a bandage on an open wound that still seeps from infection because the problem still exists and is rooted in systemic racism. 

Systemic Racism

What people need to understand is that racism at its core is a system, and not necessarily an individual. Racism is considered to be a system of oppression that is based in and upholds white superiority and the inferiority of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) individuals (What Does It Mean to Be an Anti-Racist?, 2021a). Snyder and Carter (2021) said it best: “When, as individuals, we contribute to racism and racial inequities, we are racist. If we push to dismantle racism and promote racial equity, we are anti-racist. These words are descriptive, not fixed.” 

They continue: “Antiracism requires active resistance to and dismantling of the system of racism” (What Does It Mean to Be an Anti-Racist?, 2021a). When we move towards thinking about what it means to be “anti-racist,” we move towards “action.” Action looks and sounds like physically, mentally, emotionally, and vocally showing up in spaces in a way that not only advances equity among races, but it also tears down racial inequity. What policies and procedures within our organizations perpetuate racist ideologies? What are our own biases and racist ideas that affect how we interact with others? What are we going to do about it? These are just three questions that can be addressed immediately and would have a vast impact. 

Being antiracist isn’t a fad, it is a necessity. In order to move forward in giant leaps instead of small steps, we have to collectively work as a whole. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. if you want to go far, go together.” If we want to see a change, we have to do it together because the measure of intelligence is the ability to change, and we cannot continue to operate in a state of unconsciousness.

How Does This Fit with Essence Prep?

As a result of that understanding, as the Chief Learning Officer and founding Principal at Essence Prep, we are going to be cultivating leading agents of change. That means teaching them to think critically about the world around them, call out the issues that they see, and then develop a plan to begin solving those issues. This will be done through Project Based Learning (PBL) and Field Activities within the community. 

Student agency is dear to the hearts of the Essence Prep team. Renaissance EdWords defines student agency as giving students the opportunity to learn by utilizing their individual interests, learning styles, and activities that are meaningful and relevant to who they are as individuals. This is how we will address controversial issues of public policy or social affairs. We will not have to teach them, because they will discover the truth about our society on their own through the projects and field activities. 


For example, redlining. Jackson (2021) defined the term redlining to mean racial discrimination of any kind in housing, but it comes from government maps that outlined areas where Black residents lived and were therefore deemed risky investments. According to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968, the term refers to the practice of mortgage lenders who would draw redlines around certain housing developments on a map to indicate areas or neighborhoods in which they do not want to make loans (Andres, 2021). The law was amended in June 2021, yet redlining continues to be a controversial topic.

“Though the maps were internal documents that were never made public by the federal government, their ramifications were obvious to Black homeowners who could not get home loans that were backed by government insurance programs” (Jackson, 2021). Despite the fact that this practice is illegal, racial discrimination in housing is still happening. The areas that were subject to redlining are the areas that many of our students still live in. As I stated before, we don’t have to teach what is being lived on a daily basis, we will just empower our scholars, and give them the tools they need to thrive in a system that has intended for them to merely survive.

Financial Literacy

One of the tools is making sure that we are offering a robust curriculum centered around financial literacy. In 2019 the Standard & Poor’s Global Financial Literacy Survey found that only 57 percent of American adults are financially literate. Additionally, the survey found that the financial literacy rate among adults worldwide is only 33 percent. One of the reasons financial literacy for kids is so important is that financial attitudes, habits, and norms begin to develop between ages 6 and 12, when students are typically in first through sixth grade (Everfi). Because money is not something they manage everyday, it is extremely vital that a curriculum is developed based on topics such as “like needs versus wants in fiscal responsibility, creating budgets to manage money, responsibilities that come with borrowing money, and different ways to contribute to savings and investing” (Everfi). It is necessary to instill these financial concepts into scholars during their early years so that we are able to start building a solid foundation for healthy financial decision making in the future and we plan to bring on Broadway Bank to support us with that initiative. 


Another avenue we will utilize to support our scholars with financial literacy is by developing an understanding of entrepreneurship. Scholars have amazing imaginations and an innovative spirit that are aligned with an entrepreneurial mindset. There are many children out there who dream of starting their own business, but they are not sure how to go about doing it, and that is where Essence Prep comes in. The entrepreneurial piece of our curriculum will support the visions of our scholars when it comes to starting and maintaining their own businesses. We are planning to partner with the African American Chamber of Commerce of San Antonio to assist with fostering their entrepreneurial discovery. 

Trust (2020) declared that, “Without equity-focused policies, the right mindset, and appropriate responses, educator biases (whether implicit or explicit) often unfairly and unjustly marginalize some students. Many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are seen as ‘broken’ or in need of ‘fixing,’ which undermines their excellence and results in real and harmful consequences.” Those students tend to be Black and brown students. While Essence Prep has every intention of providing the best education possible to any student who crosses the threshold of our campus, we cannot, and will not, turn a blind eye to the students who need to be given an equitable opportunity to succeed and those scholars happen to be Black and brown. Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist and educator, believes that, “Now is a time when all systems and institutions are being pushed by courageous communities to deeply interrogate their policies and practices,” and I fully agree. Essence Prep is in a position to start, literally, from the ground up and intentionally create policies and practices that offer social, emotional, and academic development through a true equity lens.


Charter Moms Chats

Jennipha “Jae” Ricks, Chief Learning Officer and Principal of Essence Prep; Akeem Brown, founder and Superintendent of Essence Prep; and Damika Burton, Director of Family Engagement and Enrollment at Essence Prep,  join Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on April 20, 2022 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Jennipha “Jae” Ricks is the Chief Learning Officer and Principal of Essence Prep. Mrs. Ricks is a native Texan and has a proven record of creating curriculum and leading schools. Before her new role at Essence Prep, she was the Principal of Brentwood STEAM School of Innovation in Edgewood ISD. She also served as the assistant principal at Young Women’s Leadership Primary and an elementary math instructional specialist for SAISD. Mrs. Ricks plans to prepare students through a specifically designed curriculum. She says Essence Prep will focus on social-emotional learning, group work, project-based work, and individualized learning. She looks forward to instructing teachers at Essence Prep to focus on building relationships and trust first with students.

Akeem Brown is the founder and Superintendent of Essence Prep—and one of the youngest superintendents in Texas. Akeem Brown (he/him/his) has dedicated his career to serving students living in San Antonio’s Eastside. By founding a school, he seeks to provide his students with the pathways to opportunities he feels are lacking in many areas of the city. Essence will utilize a project-based learning model that focuses on public policy. Students will grapple with real-world issues and develop the skills necessary to be effective agents of change. The school will also adopt community-building traditions like morning circle meetings and weekly family gatherings and use a “whole self” curriculum to teach social and emotional learning skills. “Our school should be an environment where children learn the skills they need to advocate for themselves and the needs of their communities after graduation.

Damika Burton is the Director of Family Engagement and Enrollment at Essence Prep.

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