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Brownsville Principal's School Gets Help From Community, Humans of New York

 Nadia Lopez is the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Principal Nadia Lopez
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BROWNSVILLE — Principal Nadia Lopez was sitting down to see a Broadway show with friends this January when a text message on her phone caught her eye.

“It was like ‘Have you seen this?’ And I saw a picture of Vidal, and Vidal had on a hood,” she said of her eighth-grade student, Vidal Chastanet, at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in Brownsville. “So, you know, we’re coming off of a time where hoodies and black males — it’s kind of like ‘What happened?’ ‘What’s wrong?’”

“And then they were like ‘Lights out, turn off your phones,’” she said. “I had to literally wait until intermission.”

But the photo of the student, taken for the blog Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton, was nothing to worry about. In fact, the post — in which the young man tells Stanton that Ms. Lopez is the most influential person in his life — launched Mott Hall into the Internet’s spotlight, resulting in more than 1 million likes on Facebook, a trip to the White House for Vidal and a fundraising campaign that raised $1.4 million for the school.

The money was used to send the entire school on a trip to Harvard University on April 2 and will fund scholarships and new summer courses in the future, Lopez said.

“There’s a global community that’s cheering all of us on — not just myself, but my staff and scholars,” she said in an interview with DNAinfo New York. “And it’s not a feeling of pity that’s being put forth. It’s not about, “Oh, we feel so sorry for them.’ It’s about ‘We want them to win.’ That’s how I feel. There’s a community that wants us to win.”

Founded in 2010, Mott Hall is a traditional public school that Lopez said is often confused for a charter school because students wear uniforms (purple and black, for “royalty,” she said), has a rigorous “STEAM” curriculum  — arts combined with science, technology and math — and an enviable slate of after-school activities that includes beekeeping, sewing, African drumming, culinary arts and step dancing.

DNAinfo New York sat down with Lopez to learn more about the successes and challenges at Mott Hall Bridges Academy:

What is the overall vision or goal for Mott Hall Bridges Academy?

My vision was always to provide quality education, no matter where the school was going to open [prior to its founding in 2010]. I did not know what neighborhood it was going to open in.

Overall, our goal is always to strive to provide our scholars with a safe learning environment in a rigorous curriculum, but we also … I’m always reflective on the needs of the community. The mission and the vision is always interchangeable. It’s not static.

Has the school been a success so far?

“Yes. All of our scholars in every graduating class has graduated. We’ve never had a single scholar repeat a grade.”

On success-by-the-numbers…

You’re always competing against numbers, right? And people will judge you on, well, this amount of scholars did not meet the numbers. And so I’m reminded every single day — they’re not 100-percent proficient. But no one comes into the building to see what we are actually doing with the kids. You know … when you have literally 41 incoming sixth-graders who are Level Ones [well below proficient], it’s just like, we got them that way. We didn’t create them that way. And then you have a high percentage — almost 30 percent — of kids who are special needs. That’s a toll. So, the energy that goes to pushing my team, the energy that goes toward teaching kids that, despite what the numbers say, you can still do it.

You hang a large piece of paper behind your desk with the math and reading proficiency numbers for each grade, all of which are in the single digits or low teens:

When the kids come in here or parents come in here or staff comes in here, I want them to be reminded — this is what we’re fighting against.

My teachers feel like, ‘I want to give up.’ And I’m like, ‘You can’t give up ‘cause I don’t give up. I need you to fight.’

What was your reaction to the Humans of New York post?

When I saw that and I looked at the comment  and I saw people asking ‘Who’s Ms. Lopez?' and then connecting to the story how they knew a teacher ... it was just profound. I think, so many times, I’m that person — regardless of if I’m a principal or not — I’m always feeding into people, I’m always trying to encourage people, I try to connect dots for folks. That’s what God chose me to do.

Was it the first time you’d heard such positive feedback from a student?

The kids will say it. The kids will say ‘I love my school’ and the parents will say ‘Ms. Lopez, my daughter talks about you every single day’ … but, you know, it’s such an airtight environment … If no one outside of this tells me I’m doing well, I don’t know I’m doing well. Because I’m constantly reminded that I’m not doing well.

If you ask educators, especially in schools that struggle, it’s a matter of — you never feel like you’ve made a dent. You’ll have those moments where you’ll think about the kids or you’ll think about the child who came back and made you realize why you do what you do, but [in] the every day rat race, you don’t realize.