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 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.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.