When Nadia Lopez left the corporate world to join the New York City Teaching Fellows, she didn’t anticipate starting a school in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Now a highly regarded educator and the founder and principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Lopez is widely recognized for her ability to build bridges in education — whether they be between educators and the communities they serve, or across the many divides that plauge our education system. From pushing beyond the "teaching to the test" metality to telling each and every student they matter to selecting Mott Hall's schools color — purple, because it represents royalty — Lopez took a detailed vision fo education success, and made it a reality.
She chronicles the challenges and rewards of founding Mott Hall in “Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal In A Tough Community Is Inspiring the World” (out August 30). Next month, she'll share her approach to education in a TED talk (airing September 21 online).
When we caught up with Lopez, she was eager to talk about the importance of an education that goes beyond academics, why teachers should never give up — and the brilliance of her students.
Even though you grew up in Brooklyn, you came into the Brownsville community as an outsider. How did you earn people’s trust?
I guess the best way of saying it is that I was going to be on the ground to do the work, and showing up within the community — even just walking through the housing developments, and greeting people, and introducing myself. The residents should be respected and honored. So I did that every single day [during the summer of 2010], walking every block of Brownville. I worked with community leaders — Gregg Jackson, we used to call him Jacko — he’s the unofficial mayor of Brownsville. Once people see that you’re connected to those individuals, they know that you are there supporting them, and not there to exploit them.
You made it a priority to get parents involved. What are some misconceptions people have about parents whose kids struggle in school?
I think the biggest misconception is that parents don’t care, and they’re willing to let their children fail, and that’s not necessarily the case. If you have a parent that was educated in the same system, and they may have graduated high school, or didn’t graduate, there’s a fear of coming into the school building because of how their interactions were. I also find that parents don’t want to be judged, because they’ve been judged a lot.
You also lead gender-specific summits about issues affecting the community. Why is teaching beyond academics so important to you, and how does it connect to the school’s mission?
Prior to opening up the school I was doing a lot of youth empowerment summits. Every summer, there’s a tragedy that we have to deal with in the community, and I don’t want my children to become jaded in terms of feeling like they don’t have any value in this world. Also, I don’t want them to think that they need to become a threat to law enforcement, because they feel like law enforcement is a threat to them.
So how do we engage them in conversations with individuals within various factions of the law, whether that’s an attorney’s office, NYPD, an elected official’s office? [In the summits] they get to talk to them about what their concerns are, what they feel are the issues they’re facing, and then come up with viable solutions about how they can navigate through life, and make better decisions, and be productive. So that’s kind of the social justice aspect of it... even with the coverage of #sayhisname and #sayhername, there has to be a silver lining where they kids feel like, 'I can talk, and somebody’s going to listen.'