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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.