Janine Gomez and her mold-breaking school, I Dream Academy DC
The Camelback Fellowship application is open! We are featuring past Camelback Fellows from our different tracks to share their stories, perspective on the application and program experience, and what they’re up to now.
Janine Gomez is the co-founder and Executive Director of I Dream Academy DC, an intentionally transformative learning community that nurtures 3-10 year olds to imagine and fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Janine was a 2018 Camelback Fellow in our Education track, and her school received its charter in Spring 2019 and will open in Fall 2020.
Camelback Ventures (CBV): What was the moment when you thought, “It’s time to create a whole new school?”
Janine Gomez (JG): The moment when I moved towards seriously founding I Dream Academy DC was when we’d had back-to-back tragedies, summers of televised police brutality: Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, everybody…
Since college, I have been creating iterations in journals of a school that honors children - and especially African American children - in undervalued communities. I thought, what if children could have a space to be their best, safely and without judgment, and to tap into their potential? It wouldn’t change police brutality against African Americans, but at least it gives young people a space to live their best life and to hopefully be on a path to thrive. Time is so precious, and it’s very evident to me about how quickly life can be snuffed out. I felt the urgency the summer of 2016, to create something new, and I still feel it now.
CBV: Tell me about the application experience. Any highlights or advice you can share?
JG: It’s a difficult application, but that’s why it’s great -- it forced my team to think hard and articulate what we were trying to do. It taught me how to write as a business leader, because a school is really a business, and that was a critical shift for me, coming from an education background.
Our team had the chance early on to talk to a 2017 Fellow who was a school leader, Wisdom Amouzou, and he told us, “Tell your story.” That was so important. Tell the story of being in our community, of the children we talked to, our personal stories and our journeys to this work. I thing that Telling all of those stories and supporting the stories data helped our application stand out.
CBV: How has Camelback helped you the most so far?
JG: Camelback’s curriculum was tremendously influential for me. Two modular elements in particular stuck out to me, the first being Hiring ‘A’ Players with Ify Walker. I use what I’ve learned in that workshop, continue to reference the book she gave us, and implement tools and templates all the time. Because of that work, we have a talented and committed Founding Group - school team + working board - that is aligned with our vision and values, which is fundamental to a school in its early stage. They understand what the work is right now, because that’s how we wrote the job description. We matched people that really get the work we’re doing.
Second, Pitch Ready. I came into my first Summit at Camelback to do my pitch reading from my notebook, no slides. With the coaching and workshops, I ended up at Showcase with this stellar presentation and got a huge round of applause. Camelback helped me get clear on my message, and taught me how to adjust my pitches for audience and situation -- which happens all the time as a school founder. I recently had lunch with a foundation representative to tell him the story of I Dream Academy DC. I didn’t go into that lunch to ask for anything -- and came away with a $10,000 donation for the school.
“Camelback’s curriculum was tremendously influential for me.”
The pitch Janine gave at the end of her Fellowship experience. She started at Camelback with no slides, reading aloud from a notebook.
CBV: When you think back about your Camelback experience, what sticks out to you?
JG: The people. The great Camelback team, the other Fellows in my cohort. I learned so much just getting to see other Fellow’s skills -- people who could pull a stellar pitch out of nowhere with different styles, like Brandon, Antionette, and Sophie. There’s this focus on interpersonal coaching -- inter-cohort peer coaching, conversations with subject experts, and my 1:1 coach with school expertise Morgan Ripski. It’s so impactful to have people who get what you’re doing, and understand the struggles of being a leader of color. Their feedback caused me to grow, even when they said something I didn’t really want to hear. All that shaped me.
CBV: What do you wish you knew earlier in your school founder journey? Any advice for school founders?
JG: I wish I had been more prepared earlier on to understand the politics and power dynamics going on in D.C.. Camelback had a great workshop about networks, and I should’ve followed up on it immediately -- I’m playing catch up now. For other school founders: consider how the political system works in the city where you are building your school. Not just politicians, but also in neighborhoods and communities Who has power? Who knows who? What organizations are interconnected?verything. Have a little Olivia Pope moment and put post it notes all over your window with photos and lines to connect people and organizations. In D.C., many of the people running the charter school game know each other and have ties to 3 notable education organizations. I’m learning this now, but I’m in the middle of the process. I could’ve been prepared and built relationships sooner.
Secondly, know that it’s a learning experience and you’re always learning. You can learn from anyone who has started an organization; I used to think there weren’t parallels between education and business, but I know now how similar those journeys are.
Janine working with a community group about her school.
CBV: What advice would you share to any entrepreneur?
JG: My boyfriend owns a software company, and we talk about company startup all the time. He gave me great advice recently, “Always hire the best people. Even when there’s a time crunch, and you wanna just hire somebody. Wait for the best candidate. ..” That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. When I began this journey, I welcomed anyone who was interested to join the founding team. I learned from experience not to bring someone on just because they’re friends with someone or because they want to be involved -- you have to think about what skills the organization needs, what are the mindsets you need, and then hire the best people. You have to hire what the org needs, not who likes what you are doing.
CBV: These days, what are you working on?
JG: We’re deep in our facilities search! We’ve been very committed to certain regions and Wards 8 and 7 in D.C. because children deserve time and space to be themselves, to be curious, and to dream. I think we may have found a great space in a neighborhood we’ve been excited to work with. This week, I’m doing a walkthrough with the architect and a building contractor and a commercial broker to see what needs to be done to make the school possible for summer 2020, and that will determine how we negotiate the lease,. We’re also building out our school team and instructional model. It’s all really happening.
“You know why you’re here and you know what you’re here to do.
Allow it to evolve but never give up on it.”
CBV: A fun question: any books or films that have recently inspired you?
JG: I’m reading My Grandmother’s Hands which is about how to heal racialized trauma in the body and it takes a close look at how white-body supremacy impacts the bodies of African Americans, White Americans, and police officers in particular. I really believe that I Dream Academy DC is really about liberation and healing, and so this book is resonating with me as I continue on my personal and professional journey.
CBV: Any last thoughts?
JG: To anyone out there with a vision: know that it’s hard work. Know that your vision might change some. But also know that only you know what you know, and believe what you know to be true. You know why you’re here and you know what you’re here to do. Allow this knowing to evolve but never give up on it.