Consider these recent statistics: Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood and one of 59 community districts in New York City, has the second-highest rate of incarceration and the highest rate of injury assault in the city. Also leading in the statistics is the area’s “percentage of elementary school students who miss 20 or more school days….” Despite the challenges that Brownsville’s discouraging numbers might represent, Nadia Lopez was determined to provide a positive academic experience for children growing up amid personal and educational hurdles, and in 2010, she opened Mott Hall Bridges Academy. In The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World (Viking, 2016), Lopez shares her story—from the school’s difficult first days to unexpected national attention.
Mott Hall Bridges Academy is not a charter school nor is admission gained by way of a lottery or special exam. A New York City public school serving neighborhood kids in grades six through eight, it’s subject to the rules set by the city’s Department of Education. Lopez’s plan was to open the school with a full sixth grade by drawing on students from a local school slated to close. When a court case stopped that school’s closure, she took on the role of recruiter, traveling the neighborhood to convince parents to enroll their children in a new school with no track record.
Lopez was also responsible for hiring staff, and a small student population meant a small, bare-bones budget with no money for essential resources, including a guidance counselor and textbooks. The educator is honest when writing about the challenges of that first year. But she remained steadfast in her belief that the way to best serve students was not through a zero-tolerance policy with unenforceable rules, but with a democratic approach that prepares students to manage choice.
Determined that her “scholars” be treated like children rather than statistics, Lopez doesn’t shy away from getting involved, and she expects her staff to do the same. Her stories of students, teachers, and parents are interwoven with advice gleaned from hard-won experience. For example, she maintains an open-door policy for kids and adults, mentors individual teachers to improve classroom performance, and shapes elective classes around student interests.
Committed to exposing students to the world beyond their neighborhood, Lopez brings speakers to the school and organizes field trips. While these might seem like obvious strategies, they’re not easy to implement in schools with limited resources. As Lopez notes, “The concept of the field trip is at the heart of experiential learning….Yet more often than not children in underserved communities aren’t offered these types of experiences. It’s a huge injustice that the very students who stand to benefit the most from [them] to expand [on] what they’ve seen and done are precisely the ones denied them.”
Still, by early 2015, the complexities of running a middle school in a struggling community began to take a toll on Lopez, physically and emotionally. Enter Brandon Stanton, the creator of the Humans of New York blog and his serendipitous interview with a Mott Hall student who cited Lopez as an important influence in his life. After that brief encounter, Stanton visited the middle school and used social media to raise more than a million dollars for it, some of which funded a field trip to Harvard. Overnight fame included a meeting for Lopez with President Obama, an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and a TED Talk.
While that good fortune isn’t typical for many of the educators who share Lopez’s commitment, her accessible memoir serves as welcome inspiration. The Mott Hill Bridges Academy story demonstrates the power of educators whose caring concern and high expectations make a substantial difference in the lives of students, especially those whose circumstances already demand much more than a person of their age should ever be expected to handle.
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