Interview with Rika Lee COO of Betty Shabazz International Charter School

Rika Lee COO of Betty Shabazz International Charter School
Rika Lee COO of Betty Shabazz International Charter School

Established in 1998, the Betty Shabazz International Charter School is a network of three African-centered charter schools serving K-12 students residing in Chicago: Betty Shabazz Academy (grades K-8), Barbara A. Sizemore Academy (grades K-8), and DuSable Leadership Academy (grades 9-12). Since its inception, Shabazz School has consistently produced exemplary, high achieving students who have a strong sense of cultural identity and a commitment to make positive contributions to the community and the world.

N’Digo recently spoke with Rika Lee, Chief Operating Officer of BSCIS, to learn more about the network of schools, whether charter schools are the future of education, and their upcoming second annual benefit show featuring buzz worthy R&B/Soul trio, KING.

Tell us about the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools?

Betty Shabazz International Charter School Network, founded in 1998, is one of the first charter schools established in the city of Chicago. Currently, we have two K – 8 elementary campuses – Betty Shabazz Academy and the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy which has a new home, located at 6547 S. Stewart St. Our school motto is, “Knowledge without purpose is blind.” So to that end we implement an African-centered curriculum and school culture and use the Virtues of Ma’at, an ancient African value system, to prepare our students to be leaders, working to make life better for themselves, their families, our communities and the world. These principles stress the importance of order, truth, justice, harmony, propriety, and reciprocity and emphasize the possibilities of achieving perfection in all human endeavors. We believe in the development of the whole human being – intellectually, physically, morally, and socially. We work to support a strong sense of identity and purpose with our students, to prepare them for leadership and service to build a better world. We view the school as a village in which all adults – parents and staff – work collectively for the best interests of our children. Our elementary schools send graduates to the most competitive high schools in the city.

Students at Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools
Students at Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools

What are your duties as COO of the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools?

As Chief Operating Officer, I wear a number of hats. One of my responsibilities is fund development. In a climate where educational funding is being cut substantially its up to the communities we serve to engage themselves as a part of this fundraising process. Over the last few years, we’ve had to be creative about how we go about fund raising. On Friday, July 8, 2016 we will host our 2nd annual Benefit Concert featuring soul trio, hand picked by Prince, KING. We also have a Text to give campaign where supporters can text the word EDUCATE to 243725 to make a donation.

Do you think charter schools are the future of education for children?

The challenges we face with educating our children are complex and institutionalized. I wouldn’t say that anything is “the” future. I believe that we need to wrap our students and families with a plethora of social supports and opportunities in order for us to see the type of academic growth and improved life outcomes that we seek. Charter schools are definitely positioned to contribute to that network of supports. They offer alternatives. Those alternatives can be specialized curricula, like ours, or a safer environment, or a space for teachers to try innovative instruction or resources that may not be allowable in a more traditional setting. Charter schools can also provide opportunities for communities to organize institutional structures that can create charter schools. We believe Betty Shabazz represents the fulfillment of this kind of community-based initiative. Charter schools should not exist as an excuse to disinvest in neighborhood schools. We should exist alongside, partners in identifying best practices and developing a diverse and successful educational landscape.

Are there any big misconceptions regarding charter schools that you wish people were better informed about?

rika-lee1-ndigo-chicago-768x766I always chuckle to myself when this question is asked because this is where things get personal for me. Many times, when conversing with my educator friends who work with non-charter schools they say charter schools do better because we poach the better prepared students from the traditional system. However, we do very general advertising and accept students based on a lottery system that is independently operated. Period. Also, my experience has been that many of our struggling students come because they have literally been steered to us by their neighborhood school, or they have been unsuccessful there and are looking to be rescued academically, or they have been victims of, or initiated, situations resulting in threats of violence against them that require them to relocate. We have the same students as all non-selective schools situated in high-poverty, high-crime areas. We just respond to them differently. In addition, charter schools actually receive less funding than other public schools, thus requiring intense efforts to raise additional funds to support the many needs of our students and families. We are held to the same academic standards as all other public schools. Charter schools are public schools.

What can attendees look forward to at the upcoming benefit concert?

We are extremely excited to welcome KING as our performing artist for our 2nd Annual benefit Concert at the Promontory on July 8, 2016. KING is making quite a name for themselves for good reason so those that are familiar with the group know they will get a great show and those unfamiliar will be pleasantly surprised.

Who or what inspires you?

Children inspire me. Children are my business. Everything I have done over the last ten years has been to improve the educational environment of the children and families we serve. It is my personal mission to continue to effect change in the immediate, Greater Grand Crossing and Engelwood communities we operate in. I have an immense love for black people, our culture and heritage. I believe African-Centered education is a fundamental part of righting the ship in our communities.

Thus far, of what accomplishment are you most proud career-wise?

I am most proud of the institution as a whole for fighting for our students and families. We recently, went up against CPS in the appeal process to fight their decision to close our Barbara A. Sizemore Academy (BASA) campus and won. By a unanimous vote, the Illinois Charter School Commission voted to keep the doors of our BASA campus open. This was a great achievement. We are making history.

What’s your best advice for aspiring education professionals?

The best advice I could give to education professionals would be to keep children first in everything you do. To operate with love and compassion when dealing with students. You never know the kinds of experiences and circumstances your students and families are facing and so in the spirit of “it takes a village” we always want to be supportive and compassionate.

Favorite quote or affirmation?

He who learns, teaches. – Ethiopian Proverb

What’s next for Rika Lee?

I’m excited about the future of Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools. Now that we are a State of Illinois commissioned charter school there are a wealth of new opportunities for us to service our families with greater capacity. We plan to open the doors of our new Sizemore campus location on September 5, 2016 and have a wonderful start to the 2016-2017 school year.

On Friday, July 8th the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools will hold its 2nd Annual benefit Concert featuring R&B/Soul trio KING at the Promontory in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood located at 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. For ticket information please visit

For more information about the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools please visit.

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