Nadia Lopez set out with an audacious vision in 2010 when she opened Mott Hall Bridges Academy: to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I opened a school to close a prison,” she proclaimed to a crowded hall during a live TED Talk in New York on Monday, followed by immediate applause.
Lopez opened Mott Hall in the Brownsville neighbourhood in Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas of New York.
She first gained recognition when one of her students, Vidal Chastanet, was featured on the Humans of New York (HONY) blog.
The student was asked: “Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” Chastanet replied:
“My principal, Ms. Lopez. When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
Lopez says she relates to the conditions her students live in, noting that she went through the public school system at the height of the crack epidemic. But her experience struggling through a difficult learning environment didn’t tarnish the way she views New York City schools, she said.
“I am a proud product of the New York Public School system,” she said.
At Mott Hall, Lopez and her students must work against what are seemingly insurmountable odds. She told the audience that 100% of her students live below the poverty line, 86% are below grade level in maths and English, and 30% have special needs.
But she doesn’t let those factors dictate the way she runs the school.
“We must empower out learners and we must build up their self-esteem before we hand out suspensions,” Lopez explained.
After Chastanet’s story went viral on HONY, the blog organised a fundraising campaign to send Mott Hall students on a trip to Harvard. Within 45 minutes of setting the fundraising page live, they had already hit their goal of $US100,000.
They have since raised $US1.4 million that will be used as a scholarship fund for graduates of Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
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