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 stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.