Teaching Q&A

How to Build a School From Scratch: One Principal’s Story

By Kate Stoltzfus — January 25, 2017 6 min read
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Just five years after founding Mott Hall Bridges Academy in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, principal Nadia Lopez saw her public middle school thrust into the national spotlight. Located in New York City’s seventh-poorest neighborhood—where 37 percent of residents live below the poverty line—the school enrolls about 200 local students, 98 percent of whom are African-American and Latino.

In 2015, Mott Hall 8th grader Vidal Chastanet told photographer Brandon Stanton of the photography blog Humans of New York (which shares portraits of people on the streets of New York City) that Lopez was the biggest influence in his life. His words reached more than a million readers and inspired more than $1 million in donations to the school. Lopez was invited to meet with then-President Barack Obama and subsequently heard from educators around the country, who praised her mission to nurture low-income students emotionally and academically.

Lopez details this journey of building a school from the ground up in her recent book The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community Is Inspiring the World (Viking Press), co-written with memoirist and author Rebecca Paley.

When Lopez opened the Academy in 2010 with 45 scholars—what she calls her Mott Hall students—and five teachers, she faced low enrollment and funding challenges, in addition to student behavior and engagement issues. Today, the school has been recognized for its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) curriculum; a focus on experiential learning and student well-being; and opportunities for students to learn and grow that expand possibilities for their future.

BookMarks spoke with Lopez about the experience of starting a school, why good teaching must go beyond the school day, and how she defines success.

You are recognized nationally as a principal who founded a successful middle school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City—which is inspiring and empowering students who face many challenges in and out of school. What does Mott Hall Bridges Academy’s model have to teach other schools, particularly those who serve students from low-income communities?

The model comes down to a couple of core aspects. It requires a deep commitment from an entire team. There is a belief that children can succeed, that we can work together in collaborations for the success of our children. There’s a deep understanding that we have to engage our children and their families in the process—even though sometimes we can take the brunt of being the parental adviser because some parents don’t have the capacity to support their children—and there’s respect for the dynamics of the community itself. While we are deeply rooted in these specific communities, we have to learn: What are the existing gaps? What can we do to become problem-solvers and change agents to make things better?

In the book, you discuss how, despite the improvements you see in your scholars’ everyday lives, one of the school’s biggest struggles has been meeting levels for standardized testing. You write that you aren’t against testing, but that in its current form, testing “perpetuates the idea that the kids aren’t achieving and aren’t smart enough.” What needs to change in the way we measure student success, especially for students who are making great strides but who might not meet state or national standards of proficiency.

There’s an expectation that we as educators must understand that children learn differently and must modify instruction to meet the needs of every one of our kids in the classroom. In the same way, when assessments are created, every school and every child does not meet the same demographics. How can we see the growth in these children based on their performances within the context of school and the academics that we put forth in the classroom? We have evidence to support that children are growing within classrooms, but then you take a standardized test created by a company that after two or three years is considered invalid because it doesn’t meet state standards: Did the child fail, or did we fail them in terms of ensuring that we’re actually looking at their progress and growth?

As the founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, you had seen what it was like to work in other New York City public schools, including the Bronx, and had the opportunity to shape a school from the ground up. This includes an environment that prioritizes student voice; mutual respect; the development of social and emotional skills; and special electives like culinary and dance programs; in other words, a space in which students feel comfortable staying beyond the school day. What are some of the most important things school environments and educators need to cultivate a space for students to be successful? And how do you personally measure success?

Without a vision of what you want to see children be able to achieve and the types of individuals you want in the space, it’s hard to create such an environment. I drew from my experiences [attending] a gifted middle school—quite different—the expectation that we could handle rigor and should be provided with the absolute best. I think all students should have that opportunity. I don’t think it should require you to have a high intellect. When you teach children and model for them, and you’re consistent in providing a space that allows them to be empowered and inspired and educated, it’s an investment, and they get it. They’re in middle school and from underprivileged communities, and they’re used to not being prioritized. Initially, they act accordingly. Once you have vision, everything falls into place.

You write in the book you hold both teachers and yourself to very high standards because good teaching goes beyond the hours of a regular school day. Say more about the role of dedicated teachers and what the difficulties are in making such teaching happen.

When you’re in an at-risk, disadvantaged area, it requires commitment and strong leadership. I understand what my teachers are going through because I still teach. I still go into the classroom. I model for them. I stay after school. I work on lessons plans. I’m part of their process. My teachers appreciate the fact that if I’m encouraging them, it’s because I have sat at the table in the classroom to see what they’re expected to do, and I understand what the challenges are that they face with the scholars. It’s also about giving them opportunities and building their capacity—to lead in department meetings, attend professional development outside of school, visit other schools that have great models in place, and see best practices so they don’t feel like they’re alone in the process.

Your scholars are given many opportunities for experiential learning—from walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to community walks close to home to a Harvard University field trip funded by people across the country who saw your story on Humans of New York. Talk about the importance of showing students places outside the walls of their classroom and neighborhood.

Children need to have experiences of where they can go next. The unfortunate part about Brownsville is that there aren’t consistent examples of those possibilities—being able to walk down the street in a neighborhood where every block isn’t being secured by the New York Police Department or to see thriving businesses and safe and quiet spaces. Those of us who have the privilege of living in communities that aren’t policed heavily, where we can go to a restaurant or the library, don’t realize how much of an advantage that is. The majority of our scholars have never walked across the bridge [to another borough in the city] or are going to Manhattan for the very first time. It’s a moment where they get to realize that there’s so much out there they haven’t experienced, and it builds their skills to explore and ask questions and want to know more and go beyond their community and travel.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Andrew Fennell

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.