First Person

How the inspiring principal made famous on Humans of New York fixed a mentorship program that wasn’t working

The author, principal Nadia Lopez, speaking with former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (YouTube / U.S. Department of Education)

Nadia Lopez has had an extraordinary year.

The principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn was thrust into the spotlight when Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the popular “Humans of New York” Facebook page, snapped a few pictures of a Mott Hall student. The eighth-grader told the photographer about his inspiring principal, and soon Lopez was everywhere: on the news, at the White House, and taking students to Harvard, thanks to an online fundraising campaign that raised more than $1 million for the school.

Lopez’s new book, “The Bridge to Brilliance,” offers a more detailed look at how she founded Mott Hall Bridges and her ongoing fight to make the school a supportive place for her students. In this excerpt, Lopez rethinks a key mentorship program for boys.

From day one of Mott Hall, I had made it my mission to teach kids they mattered. That goal informed so many of my decisions, including who I hired as staff. I made sure I had male teachers of color, not the norm in New York City, because I needed men in the building who could talk to my boys.

Despite the powerful role models teachers like Mr. McLeod and Mr. Millard presented, it was still important to bring in other voices, because kids aren’t stupid. They know teachers are paid to be at school, so sometimes they are like, “Yeah. I hear you saying it, but you’re supposed to say that to me,” as opposed to, “Wow, this person actually took time out of his day to come talk to me.”

So during Mott Hall’s first year, we started a program called My Brother’s Keeper, in which I brought in adults from outside the school — fashion designers, music producers, mental health personnel, and college students. The point was to get the scholars in tune with individuals they wouldn’t normally have access to. I even got General Steele, a well-known rapper from Brownsville, to show up.

I went into My Brother’s Keeper confident of my ability to reach out to the community because of my past success with organizing workshops for young people. So I was totally caught off guard when My Brother’s Keeper didn’t work at my school.

In Mott Hall’s second year, when I hosted a weekend symposium, only about 35 people showed up — and that included the adult panelists. I decided it was an anomaly. They can’t all be great events, right? But the next year, it was the same thing. Maybe 70 people attended our Saturday event. Where are the men? I wondered. Where are the boys?

I was bewildered, because I couldn’t think of a place where boys and men needed to connect more than Brownsville. Marquis — my scholar who hadn’t walked in his graduation because he basically stopped coming to school — came to mind. I had tried to connect him with men while he was at Mott Hall. When the head of a local community organization came to school, he and Marquis had hit it off and he gave Marquis a pile of books, which excited Marquis and made him feel special. But the community organizer, who moved away, never returned to Mott Hall. While the loss was hard for me, it was par for the course for Marquis. Kids like him are used to having men disappear. The result, though, is that Marquis and others like him learn to identify with the neighborhood guys who are always waiting outside.

Then it hit me. It was the same as everything else at Mott Hall; we just had to keep telling them over and over in different ways, including the name we gave to the support group we created for our boys.

“I’m changing My Brother’s Keeper,” I declared, “to I Matter.”

It might not have seemed like a big change. But altering the name of this action group completely changed people’s perception of the group and their willingness to participate in its events.

My Brother’s Keeper implied the idea of men taking care of other men. That’s seemed to mean asking the men I wanted to reach to do something they had never been taught to do. There was no way they were going to put themselves out there like that. Meanwhile, the message of I Matter was “I am important enough to receive something I need and want.” Instead of being in charge of other people, this was about affirming yourself.

When we held the first of our four annual I Matter empowerment summits for eighth-grade boys, which we opened up to the larger community, the response was immediate. At least 200 boys and men attended the summit about government and the criminal justice system. That’s all it took — a name change!

We chose this theme because the law and law enforcement were pressing issues for our boys. They don’t respect law enforcement personnel and don’t understand government officials because no one has ever spoken to them about what these people do.

On that panel were five people representing community engagement, civil service, politicians, and police officers. And the panelists weren’t just any members of those professions but top in their fields, like Eric Adams, a Brownsville native who was then a state senator.

After that summit, we hosted a second one, about health and wellness, at Brookdale Hospital. Here it was the location of the event that was crucial in shifting perspectives. Brookdale is notorious in Brownsville as the “murder hospital,” because that’s where people go to die from gunshot wounds. “The shooting victim was taken to Brookdale” is all these boys hear of the medical center.

In approaching Brookdale’s director of community relations, I was very specific that for my panel I didn’t want doctors or the nurses whom the kids see all the time. I wanted anybody else instrumental in keeping the hospital running. This was a great opportunity to have these young men reengage with civic institutions that should be places of safety but instead had come to represent another threat. It would also introduce them to careers they had never heard of before.

And so we had eight terrific panelists, including the person in charge of ventilation at Brookdale (no one ever thinks that the ventilation in a hospital works because someone is in charge of it) and the head of the cafeteria. The cafeteria! After the hospital made food for the kids, they saw Brookdale in a totally different light.

From The Bridge to Brilliance by Nadia Lopez and Rebecca Paley, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.