bSMART Guide

In 2010, Dr. Nadia Lopez founded Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in all of New York City.  After overcoming insurmountable challenges to open and run her school, Dr. Lopez was committed to offering a safe, nurturing, and innovative learning environment in a community often seen as hopeless with only 32% of students graduating high school and just 14% getting a bachelor’s degree.  Burnt out from years of giving, working late nights, and creating endless program initiatives letting her scholars know she cared, she felt ready to quit in January 2015.  The very day she contemplated writing her resignation, one of her students, Vidal Chastanet, was featured on the popular Humans of New York blog stating that the person who inspired him the most was his principal, Ms. Lopez, because ‘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.’ The post went viral resulting in Dr. Lopez appearing on the the Ellen Show, visiting President Barack Obama, and receiving the Medal of Distinction from Barnard College.

The Humans of New York blog took the opportunity to fundraise $100,000 in order to send the students on a school trip to visit Harvard. The fundraiser met it’s goal in only a few hours eventually raising $1.4 million dollars for future student trips and multiple scholarships.  Dr. Lopez is a 2016 Global Teacher Prize Finalist, Ted Talk Fellow, 2015 Black Girls Rock Change Agent Award recipient and 2015 Ebony Magazine Power 100 Honoree.  She has chronicled her lessons learned building a school and how future educators and policy makers can change the world through education in her new book The Bridge to Brilliance.  Learn how you can help students build a bridge to their future, create life change in the classroom, make a comeback after a career setback, use listening for effective leadership, and be the change you want to see in your community.

Purchase The Bridge to Brilliance here and watch her PBS Ted Talk on The Education Revolution here.


I wanted to be the very thing that inspired me to be great - an educator who cared.


Empowering Education

What are some of the challenges you and inner city educators face?

As an inner city educator, the main challenge I have is to remain inspired and encouraged to do my work.  Oftentimes people see Brownsville as a place of hopelessness because only 32% of children graduate high school and only 14% will get a bachelor’s degree.  I have to remain encouraged to find the strength to empower my teachers, my scholars, and their families.  

When you’re in a community that deals with a lot of post-traumatic stress (which comes from abandonment, poverty, and losing parents) we become the family that sustains them.  You would think we’re called to provide education only in terms of instruction, but we’re also counselors, pastors, and mental health providers who listen to our children.  

In addition, I’m reminded of the lack of resources we have available everyday.  We often go into our own pockets to provide the things they need.  I have children who arrive without pencils, pens, paper, or backpacks and they’re expected to make it through the school year.  When you think about what we have to overcome, it’s not easy.  But, I remain encouraged because being born and raised in an inner-city community, someone took time out for me, and if I can make it, then I know my children can, as well.

How can all scholars build a bridge from their past to their future?

In my book, The Bridge to Brilliance, I draw from an experience taking my first scholars as a teacher across the Brooklyn Bridge.  I’ve lived in Brooklyn my whole life and I’m very familiar with the Brooklyn Bridge, but for the first time, I watched children (who were tough on the outside and defied adults) be so afraid to cross this monstrosity of a structure.  They didn’t understand that on the other side of the bridge was Manhattan, and it was a pathway for what would come next in their life.  

When I opened my school, I thought about what its name should be and how we’re all connected - just like when we walked over the bridge with those children who were so afraid.  We had to lock arms to remind them that I was there for them and I would never let them fall.  At Mott Hall Bridges Academy, our motto is ‘Connected to Succeed.’  We tell our scholars that Brooklyn is part of your past, then when you hit that bridge you’re part of your present, and when you arrive at Manhattan, you’re going to your future.

All of this speaks to the expectations we have for our scholars as they leave our school.  The expectation is that they’re going to go on to high school, and some of them (not all if they choose) are going to go to college.  We focus on STEAM (which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) because there are so many types of careers our scholars can have whether it’s coding, learning to blog, robotics, or fashion design.  We’re not saying every child needs to go to college, but we do need to equip them with skills to prepare them for what’s to come in their future.  Since that often doesn’t happen in our families’ households, I need to make that part of the conversation with my kids.      


In Brownsville only 32% of children graduate high school and only 14% will get a bachelor’s degree.


What is your message to teachers for high standards and classroom culture?

When I got into teaching, I was a career-changer.  I used to work in the corporate market as an account collections representative at Verizon.  I dealt with some of the most irate customers who could care less about what I was saying - they simply wanted their phone turned on.  After I had my daughter, I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to be the very thing that inspired me and reminded me to be great - which was an educator who cared.

From my experience working in the corporate world dealing with irate customers, I realized they weren't upset with me once I took the time to listen to the customer's needs.  It’s the same situation in the classroom.   Those children are looking for someone to care.  They’re looking for someone to provide discipline, take hold of them, remind them they’re significant, and remind them of their value - especially in communities where they’re not reminded of that at home.

I have children who’ve never heard their parents say they love them, have never received a hug, never been told they’re beautiful.  It’s unbelievable to watch a child shy away because you tell them they’re awesome and they don't believe you.  If you’re not in this to put in the hours, understand the dynamics, and work in the community to understand the needs, then education, especially in a disadvantaged community, isn't for you.

What should our expectations be for parents in underserved communities?

My parents aren't from this country.  My mom is from Guatemala and my dad is from Honduras.  Neither of them graduated high school or have a formal collegiate background, but they had expectations that I would go to college.  They had expectations that I would have a career and do something masterful.  While my mother didn’t understand any of the work I had to complete, she knew when a teacher cared.  My mother was there every step of the way.  I share this because parents have to show up.

You don't have to understand the curriculum.  You don't have to know every single thing your child is expected to learn.  But if you show up in the classrooms and ask teachers, ‘How can I help my child?  What are some extra resources that are available?’  Your children will benefit.

As principals, we have the responsibility of ensuring that parents feel welcomed to come into our building with an open-door policy and share their concerns so that we can sit down and create a plan of action that best supports their family.  We’re here to be of service to you.  Not the other way around.  But parents have to show up in order for us to do that.


They’re looking for someone to provide discipline, take hold of them, remind them they’re significant, and remind them of their value.


How can curriculum support the holistic development of every scholar?

The intention for Common Core was to make sure everyone in the United States was following the same curriculum.  But what we didn't anticipate (and I don't think a lot of people in policy thought through) is that the curriculum is subject to interpretation.  What’s more, corporations are making money from creating tests that, honestly, aren’t allowing our kids to critically think, and are creating more stress reiterating scores that say they're failing.   

What we need to focus on are skills needed for the 21st century.  Yes, there need to be benchmarks, but they need to be fair.  A love for learning, reading habits, and socialization skills should also come from school.  Now, we have classrooms where kids are only learning to take a test that has no validity once they get into the the boardroom or the operating room.  It's not just impacting the most disadvantaged kids.  It's impacting kids across America.

I’m asking policy makers to stay in our classrooms for an entire day and not just the ribbon cutting ceremony.  See what a teacher's day is like.  Become a principal for a day and see what an administrator has to go through.  It will open your mind to see why our educational system isn’t thriving and why we have so many people leaving a profession that gave many of us the opportunity to become great individuals leading society.  As long as we continue to lose great teachers and great principals, we’ll be failing a generation.  We all have the power to make that change and expect it from our elected officials.


Watch Nadia's bSMART interview here!

I knew I was called to help kids, advocate on their behalf, and educate generations to come.


Passionate Principal

How did you recover after feeling broken and ready to quit as a principal?

I knew I was called to help kids, to advocate on their behalf, and to educate generations to come, but in January 2015, I wanted to quit.  What got me through was prayer.  My mother asked me to pray the day I told her I couldn’t go on another moment.  I refused.  I was angry.  I was tired of giving.  As a divorced woman, I never asked to become a single parent.  I never asked to become a leader.  My role grew out of my career and I took it on, but I was overwhelmed by the circumstances of my life and it felt like every wall was closing in on me.

I finally prayed in this very office.  It was Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was here for a leadership conference.  I couldn't get angry anymore, so I just said to God, ‘Thank you for choosing me.  I apologize for being angry.  Whatever you want me to do, I'll do it.’  It was in that moment I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.  It was that very same night that someone sent me a photo of my scholar Vidal Chastanet featured on the Humans of New York blog.  It felt like God's message that the work I was doing wasn't in vain and had significant implications for others.  

Whether you’re in a professional leadership role or you’re head of the household, people want you to be a superhero and never take a moment for yourself.  It's okay.  Take a minute, take a second, take an hour.  Walk outside if you need to.  Breathe in and let it out.  I love sitting in my car in the the silence sometimes.  If you're not good to you, you definitely can't be good to anyone else.


Corporations are making money from tests that don't allow our kids to think critically and only reiterate scores that say they're failing.


What does effective leadership mean to you for Mott Hall Bridges Academy?

Leadership is being present and being an example.  I could be that principal who hides behind a door and a computer all day, but that wouldn’t help anyone.  I need to know what's going on in my classrooms, what my teachers are dealing with, and what my scholars are learning.  I need to be informed.  That's how I make the decisions about the type of professional development we provide our staff, the type of programs my scholars need, and the type of resources I will have to beg for.  

If you’re not present and you’re not there to inspect what you expect, people will do anything, because that's human nature.  Throughout my book, you hear about me being hard on people.  I'm not saying it to be proud, I'm saying it because, unfortunately, too many children have failed.  If you haven't taught a child how to specifically get something done - how to actually apply a strategy - you can't blame them.  If teachers come in late and then talk about children coming in late, it’s because you haven't modeled the expectations for them.  

Leadership is about expectations.  I’ve seen leaders who weren't stepping up, but I’ve also seen those who were willing to empower their staff.  I was inspired by that, so I created my own school.  My staff will tell you, I love them, but I want the best from them because we have a responsibility to the children we serve.


‘Thank you for choosing me.  I apologize for being angry.  Whatever you want me to do, I'll do it.’


What role does listening have in letting students know they matter?

When I was in high school, I failed three classes, and no one bothered to ask me why.  One teacher even called my mom and told her to save her money because I simply wouldn't make it to college.  However, my U.S. history teacher, Mr. Pearson, approached me after class one day saying, ‘You give great comments whenever I raise a question, but you don't study, you don't do your work, what's going on with you?  I know you’re intelligent.’

In that moment, I collapsed in his arms and started to cry.  It was the first time anyone had asked me what was wrong.  My parents had separated and I was brought up in a household where whatever happens in the house stays in the house.  I was tired of holding on to this story and trying to seem like everything was perfect, when it wasn't.

That defining moment changed my mindset.  I went to summer school, worked extremely hard, and I got into the college of my choice.  Because of that experience, I decided that any time I saw a child acting out, it wasn’t because they wanted to sabotage themselves.  It's because something happened and someone didn't take the time to listen.  

As a principal and former teacher, I know you feel like you don't have the time to do it.  But, if you take time to listen to what's really going on, it can transform a child's life.  Then, you can find the right type of support and resource in the community that can help not only them, but their family members.  When I see my former scholars, they always say the best thing I ever did was give them a space to share their stories and to get good advice without judgement.

Remember, children don’t choose to be disruptive.  No child or their parent wants to embrace failure.  What they want is the attention they haven't been given and someone to finally recognize that something needs to be done.  It's up to you to just listen.


As long as we continue to lose great teachers and great principals, we’ll be failing a generation.


How can communities and schools be the change they want to see?

I didn't choose to lead a school in Brownsville.  I was told I was going to open up a school here.  I could have turned down the opportunity of a lifetime or embrace what would become my true purpose.  You might not see it at first based on the number of project buildings or people’s tough exteriors, but Brownsville is a community where the most brilliant, beautiful, loving and resilient individuals live.  I couldn’t understand how a community in a borough I love was so underfunded, neglected, and allowed to fail.  I could either complain like everyone else or open a school to close a prison.  

I created mentorship programs where professionals could volunteer their time with students.  The ‘I Matter’ program empowers boys by allowing them to engage in dialogue about issues that happen in their communities.  The ‘She is Me’ program is for our young women to see positive role models as opposed to what they see online or in reality shows with women yelling and degrading each other.  We have a responsibility to change the narrative portrayed by the media.   

Our ‘I Matter’ program has six series that run from September to June for 250 to 300 young men from schools throughout Brownsville.  Our ‘She is Me’ program meets every Tuesday to teach our young women to love themselves. We have girls who don't love themselves; and hurt people tend to hurt people.  We want them see they’re beautiful, intelligent beings who have purpose by being role models and engaging in the process.

My days at Mott Hall Bridges Academy run until 11:00 or 12:00 at night and I often leave with the custodian.  I do this because my commitment is not just to my paycheck.  You can't ask for more than a child saying ‘thank you’ and telling you that they love you because you've always been there for them.  I can't tell you how much satisfaction that makes me feel every single time I see one of my scholars.

How do you turn criticism it into something that becomes a movement?  Show up.  If you’re part of an organization, church, sorority, or fraternity - show up and volunteer.  Be committed.  Our children need you.  There are schools everywhere, and there's not one school who would ever say no.  Give back, because what you receive is so much greater.


Leadership is being present and being an example.


How can we be smart instituting public policies for underserved students?

Children in disadvantaged communities come with excessive gaps.  In Brownsville, most kids don't have access to books until they start kindergarten around six years old.  Libraries are often located within the housing projects and, with the amount of gangs that exist, it's hard for children and their families to cross into different sections because it could mean the difference between life and death.

With respect to curriculum, it’s important that my kids learn entrepreneurship.  Why? Because the average income in this community is $27,000.  That's the community at large, but within Van Dyke Housing Projects, it's $11,000.  No one can sustain a family on that, so it’s very important my scholars learn how to legally make money by turning an idea into a product or service that society needs.  

My scholars learn through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship how to create business plans, services and goods, and how to pitch their ideas.  In addition, we offer coding, fashion design, and robotics.  They go through veterinary science and do dissections - all of the things they would probably be exposed to in high school or college, but my kids are so far behind that I need to expose them now.  I need them to get excited about their future.

Also, there are ways we can improve how we’re training our teachers within the educational system.  Schools make money from the preparation of teachers, but often they haven’t changed their own curriculum to ensure teachers are prepared for what they’re going to experience in the classroom.  That includes dealing with kids who are difficult and challenging, have special needs, or with a curriculum that doesn't fit a particular community.  They graduate with a false sense of hope, and then they come to a school like mine and I have to have a different conversation.

In addition, we need to develop relationships with our colleges and universities not only to prepare our future educators, but to also create pipelines so that kids in elementary, middle, and high school have the opportunity of visiting colleges, know what programs are available, the type of financial aid they can receive, and the type of coursework they can take online versus a brick and mortar location.  There's so much we can do to close this gap if we develop relationships.

Finally, for those corporations out there - you have a community responsibility.  Show up to those schools who need you.  Encourage staff members to volunteer their time and services during a work day.  You have an extra box of paper?  Schools in disadvantaged communities can use that.  A wall needs to be painted?  Maybe you can come out and help us.  Perhaps you have someone who has an engineering background who wouldn't mind sitting with kids and explaining the art of their profession and how they got there.

There's so much we can do to bridge the gap if we want to see our kids succeed in the 21st century.  It doesn't matter what part of the world we’re in.  We all need to be part of the process and stop blaming each other.  What are you going to do to make a difference?


I could have turned down the opportunity of a lifetime or embrace what would become my true purpose.



If you take time to listen to what's really going on, it can transform a child's life.


Spotlight on Nadia Lopez

Neighborhood: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Occupation: Principal, Author

Twitter: @thelopezeffect

Instagram: @thelopezeffect

Women I Admire: My Mother, Shirley Chrisholm, Oprah, Michelle Obama & Gloria Steinem

Ultimate Accessory: Earrings

Favorite Store: Zara

Go-to Outfit: Perfect black jacket makes every look pop.  It can go from business casual to cocktail event and with my days I need quick transition.

Must-have Shoes: Stuart Weitzman single strap nude with just a little sparkle. And of course a black pump, my current favorite are from Barneys.

Favorite Nail Polish: Clear

Can't Live Without Product: CC Cream from Mary Kay. Takes care of dark circles after a long day!

Signature Scent: Flowerbomb by Victor & Rolf

Beauty Essential: Water and sunscreen (with a good SPF of course)

Cocktail of Choice: Coconut Mojito

Best Date: My Daughter

Travel Destination: Jamaica & Grenada

Current Craving: Sleep

Favorite Quote: To thine own self be true

College / University: Wagner & LIU




Comments (3)

  1. Deja Edwards

This is something I want to do for the youth in my community as well, so I am more inspired and encouraged to reach out and make those connections.

  1. Amanda McNaught

Love this!

  1. Meagan Hooper    Amanda McNaught


There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location