Leah is a writer and editor living in New York City.
Nadia Lopez is all too aware she is fighting an uphill battle as the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy middle school in Brownsville, NY — a neighborhood nicknamed the “murder capital” — but she’s not about to let that stand in her way.
“This is a place where you don’t often see the hope,” Lopez told LittleThings. “You feel the helplessness first. I could not be the one to stand by and let that be the story of children here.”
The stats on Brownsville are staggering: Only 61 percent of the neighborhood’s students graduate on time from high school. The murder rate in the neighborhood in 2015 was about four times the overall New York rate, and Brownsville’s incarceration rate is three times the rest of New York City’s.
Still, against all odds, what Lopez started as a classroom of just 24 underprivileged students in the sixth through eighth grades has become a symbol of just how much education can make a difference. Her key success: 100 percent of her students have gone on to graduate high school so far, she says.
Lopez, a graduate of Wagner College, began her career working as an account-collections representative at Verizon. She decided to switch gears when she gave birth to her daughter in 2001.
“It was something about watching her grow up in that year that I took off from work that made me realize that someone is going to have to be responsible for her and someone is going to have to impact her life the way that teachers had impacted mine,” Lopez says. “My mother had trusted the education system, but who was I going to trust with her?”
Lopez first started as a public school teacher in 2003, earning a graduate degree in education in 2005. In 2008, she applied to open her own school.
“I didn’t choose Brownsville,” Lopez says. “It was the New York City Department of Education that saw a fit for a school to come into this community, a small school that was specialized in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math].”
Lopez began by pounding the pavement in the neighborhood to round up students for her fledgling school.
“It was the hottest summer in New York City history and I was going into different housing developments, libraries, block parties, wherever there were children I was there.”
She got her school off the ground in 2010, and then the real work began. “I started with five classrooms,” she says. “None of the stuff that is here now was here. It was like walking into a squatters space.”
Lopez’s students — almost all Latino or African-American, and almost all living in poverty, and 30 percent with learning disabilities — enroll already behind, and it’s Lopez and her staff’s job to catch them up.
“They come to me and are reading at a third or fourth grade reading level,” she says. “They can’t do multiplication or division… It’s a daunting task.”
Lopez, whose school has grown to over 200 students, takes an unusually personal approach to the role of principal to do just that. She gave up one of her spring breaks to tutor a student failing in math and reading. When a student told her he had never been to a bookstore, she took him to the flagship Barnes & Noble in Manhattan herself. And when one of her students lost his mother, she set up a support group for other students facing loss.
Despite successes, Lopez says she was at the end of her rope and on the verge of quitting when her school drew national attention in 2015, after one of her students, Vidal Chastanet, was interviewed on the blog Humans of New York, in which he described her as one of the most influential people in his life.
The post went viral and led to a fundraising campaign, which raised $1.4 million for the school. Lopez used some of the money to take her students on a tour of Harvard, along with setting aside money for college scholarships for her students.
Despite the accolades that Lopez has received since — she was even invited to the White House to meet with President Obama — she says her day to day remains just as tough as ever, but she feels reinvigorated that educators can make a big difference.
“My kids are still struggling, they still live in housing developments, they still come from the same tough set of circumstances. So when they come to school, they are dealing with a lot, and we have to support them the best way we know how,” she says.
“It’s our responsibility as a village to show up,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure these children, even if they aren’t ours by blood, are taken care of and given the necessary tools to be successful.”
LittleThings recently spent the day with Lopez at Mott Hall Bridges Academy to see exactly what makes the school so special. Watch below!
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