When Nadia Lopez left the corporate world to join theNew 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 principalof 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.
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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 ina TED talk(airingSeptember 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.'
Your story came to public attention after a chance meeting between one of your students and aHumans of New Yorkphotographer. But for many teachers, a lack of recognition is a reality. What advice would you give to other educators?
I would say stay encouraged. You don’t get immediate gratification, and it won’t necessarily come from the administrators you work with or the children that you serve, but you have to understand you’re here to serve a higher purpose, and in doing so, the fruits of your labor come 5-10 years from now.
In your book, you say you left the corporate world to teach because you felt called to serve a higher purpose. Can you tell me more?
Yes, I felt called to teach. I was working at Verizon, and I had just given birth to my own daughter, and she just constantly reminded me that someone is going to be her teacher. I could only hope that some adult in the classroom was going to care about her, and teach her the value and importance of education, inspire her, and tell her she was great. And I started to think about how I had the power of choice, but every child doesn’t have that. So what happens to those children who may not have equity and access, whose parents may not have the capability for private school? So immediately I was like, I think I need to go into teaching… and that’s how I ended up applying for the NYC Fellows program.
What’s one thing you want people to know about your students?
How brilliant the children of Brownsville are. And that’s pretty much the premise of the “Bridge to Brilliance.” I firmly believe that if you reaffirm your community, and the children you come in contact with, they will rise to the occasion.