Academy for Urban Scholars Director Receives Outstanding Educational Leader Award - Buckeye Community Hope Foundation

Academy for Urban Scholars Director Receives Outstanding Educational Leader Award

Mr. Derek Lee

Mr. Derek Lee, school leader at The Academy for Urban Scholars Columbus, was recognized with an Outstanding Educational Leader Award at the Education 2.0 conference held in Las Vegas. After being contacted by the conference, Mr. Lee went through rounds of interviews, submitted writing samples, and sent in a community work piece to become an honoree.

“It means the world to me to have this award,” Lee said. “When I made my transition into education, I always knew I wanted to be impactful, and I knew it would take people to help me do that. The award, to me, is a combination of that work and strategic planning of partnering with my team to push education forward for our scholars. I’ll always remember this achievement.”

How long have you worked in education?

It’s been an interesting journey for me. I got into the field in 2005, my first position came by accident. I originally went to Ohio State for agricultural business and applied economics, but after getting into that field, I ended up hated it. While trying to find my next move, I had a friend who recommended me to the program he worked for. I ended up working in the educational part of the program; I subbed some classes and eventually went back to school to get my master’s in special education. After working in a district for five years as an intervention specialist, I wanted to grow more, and I found The Academy for Urban Scholars. I started as an intervention specialist and worked my way up to School Director.

Who or what inspired you to have a career in education?

Even though I fell into education, looking back, I had some remarkable teachers that pushed me to really love academics, especially my 5th grade teacher. When I was in 6th grade, she recommended me to a young scholar’s program that offered me a full ride scholarship to Ohio State. Since then, I’ve had some phenomenal instructors that have helped me become more of a seasoned educator.

How has working at a charter school shaped your career?

This is the first time in education that I’ve had the autonomy to create. When you work for a district, you have to follow exactly what they tell you to do, the curriculum they want you to use. It’s limiting in a sense, whereas in the charter world you have more creative opportunities. You can put programs together to really address the needs of your students and community. At our school, we have a scholar success center, filled with resources for our scholars. In a district, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to get that intimate with the people you’re working with to know they have those needs, and to be able to address them.

What do you enjoy most about your role? 

What I enjoy most is the scholars and seeing them transform. When I see graduates come back, it’s really exciting to see them and hear about the opportunities they’ve had and what they were able to accomplish. As the director, I love being hands-on and building these programs to help make our scholars successful. We’re a family, and we embrace that. Even though we’re a four-day school week, we still have scholars that come in on Fridays for one-on-one tutoring, or even to get their hair braided by teachers who have that skill and are willing to donate their time and energy.

What are your primary goals for The Academy for Urban Scholars in the next 3 years? How are you working towards meeting them now? 

I want us to be a campus; I see us sitting on acreages of land with an academic center, sports facility, and a community center. I would love to have all these places as part of our school to impact our scholars. Within 3 years, my goal is to secure enough funding to be able to pursue those visions of a campus full of resources.

What recent successes at your school are you most proud of?

We did receive the 21st Century After School grant, which provides us with more resources for reading and math enrichment opportunities for scholars, as well as extra-curricular activities. We are now able to do a full, robust athletic program, offering boys and girls track, basketball, and cross country, with more to come. In addition, with this grant, we’re able to offer classes up until 6:30PM as well as on Saturdays to really meet the needs of scholars.

We were also just awarded the CTE grant, which is $800,000. That grant will allow us to purchase 3D printers, vision pro headsets, robotic arms, and lots of other things our scholars need. In order for us to have an impact, we need the resources. To be able to secure both funding sources, we have an extra opportunity to impact our scholars.

Tell me a little more about your life outside of school – what are your hobbies/interests? 

I have two very hyperactive children and love spending time and being active with them. Outside of school, I love to roller skate. I’ll go to the skating rink on weekends and occasionally see some of my scholars there. I love being active and out and about. Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I love to dance! Other than that, I like to just relax as well as read any book I can get my hands on.

We commend Mr. Lee on his outstanding achievements at The Academy for Urban Scholars. To other school leaders, Mr. Lee’s advice is:

“Tap into your networks. I think sometimes we often work in silos, and it’s because we get so focused on the things we’re trying to get done. We need more collaborative efforts. Get as many people on your team as possible that are knowledgeable in different spaces.”

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