Photos courtesy of Leotha Stanley

If you walk up to Kromrey Middle School looking for Dom Ricks on the afternoon of a schoolwide race, you might miss him. Donning a t-shirt, athletic pants, and sneakers, Middleton-Cross Plains’ youngest and first Black principal will be trading jokes with a student or cheering on a group of runners. When you walk into his office, the anime posters and bobbleheads may not conjure images of the principal’s office. But it won’t take long to notice the respect and comradery that Ricks holds among the staff and students, which is the mark of an effective principal.

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Ricks did not think seriously about college until his high school poetry coach started a program to support first-generation students. His experience in the program made him an excellent candidate for the 4th cohort of UW-Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Scholarship Program. The First Wave program helped Ricks to grow as a poet and spoken word artist who also raps and acts. Although the principalship and family keep him quite busy, he still works with the program occasionally and invites artists into the school to share with students. 

Although Ricks originally considered majoring the sociology and political science in preparation to practice law, the impact that his mentor had on him made him want to try teaching. “I fell in love with it and law school was off the table,” he says. Ricks appreciates that education allows him to intervene with young people before problems arise, where the law would mean intervention after the fact. 

Ricks’ teaching career has been marked by great success. He began his career as a middle school teacher in Louisiana, where he was named as his school’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. He returned to Dane County in 2016 and taught eighth grade literacy in Verona. In 2018, he moved to the Middleton-Cross Plains School District as the dean of students at Glacier Creek Middle School and became Kromrey’s principal in 2019. Along the way, Ricks has recorded a TED talk and earned a master’s degree in K-12 administration from UW-Madison.  

Ricks is currently leading the effort to build a two-way Spanish-English immersion program at Kromrey. He is particularly excited for his son, a rising fifth grader, to participate in this program when he comes to Kromrey next year. 

Ricks has experienced a number of challenges and triumphs due to his dual “first” status in his role. In working to build credibility among school staff, Ricks encountered some challenges where it was unclear if the issue was in reaction to his age or race. As the youngest principal, he has had to navigate relationships carefully to garner respect among staff that are largely older than he. As the first Black principal, he had to navigate disparities in responses to his school’s Black Lives Matter messages in comparison to those from schools with white leaders. In addition to these challenges, Ricks’ first year as principal was marked by the COVID pandemic that began halfway through the year. 

The demographics of Black teachers and school staff in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District has not changed much in Ricks’ tenure. He is dedicated to supporting the district to recruit and retain more Black teachers and administrators by making the community, the district, and these positions desirable to Black applicants. He believes that it is important to address the “brain drain” of Black people who grow up in Madison or come to Madison for school and leave. This requires that the Dane County become a place where these people feel welcome to stay.

After five years as principal, Ricks has done the work to build trust. He has hired or had a hand in hiring almost one-third of the school’s 130 staff. He has established his office as a place where students can come to talk about super heroes and hip hop rather than a punitive space. “It feels like it’s my school now.”