CLAIM TO FAME
In January of this year, a Brownsville, Brooklyn, middle school student named Vidal Chastanet was featured on the well-known blog Humans of New York. Asked who was the most influential person in his life, Chastanet answered, “My principal, Ms. Lopez,” explaining how she encouraged the kids of this impoverished neighborhood to value themselves and “told each one of us that we matter.”
Nadia Lopez ’98 founded Chastanet’s school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, in 2010, because she wanted to create “a learning institution that shows our scholars why they matter and how they too can become successful.” The public middle school has just over 200 students (called “scholars”) in grades 6–8. The student body reflects the socioeconomic challenges of the neighborhood, with 28 percent having special learning needs, and 75 percent qualifying for free lunch. Yet MHBA receives the Board of Education’s top rating for its culture of high expectations and support for high achievement.
After interviewing Chastanet, Humans of New York blogger Brandon Stanton featured Lopez and her staff as well, and he started an online fundraising campaign for the school. Its goal: to fulfill Lopez’s vision of taking her sixth graders on a trip to Harvard University. “If you talk about college and career readiness and you don’t take them to college, if you don’t expose them to what those careers look like, then we’re just using buzzwords that have no true purpose,” Lopez reasons. And the public found her case compelling: The campaign not only met its goal of raising $100,000; it raised $1.4 million from more than 51,000 donors. Mott Hall Bridges Academy and Nadia Lopez became emblems of hope and promise despite difficult circumstances.
Lopez herself is well aware that she exemplifies this promise. “What I love is sharing the possibilities that tomorrow has to offer,” she says. “What I love is being the example of a Brooklyn girl whose parents are immigrants, whose parents separated when she was in middle school. I think I exemplify a lot of those things that may be considered a struggle in life but still I was able to succeed.”
Lopez came to Wagner College in 1994 to study not education, but nursing. But, it gradually became clear that nursing was not where she belonged, even though she loved the profession and loved the nurturing environment in Wagner’s nursing program. One professor, Lauren O’Hare, pointed her in a new direction. “Professor O’Hare told me to consider education or psychology because she believed that my passion was for people, but not so much through a nursing career. Evidently, she was on to something, but I wouldn’t trade my nursing degree and the experiences I gained through the program for anything else.”
After her daughter, Cenne, was born in 2001, Lopez felt drawn to teaching. Two Wagner alumnae, Jodie Clanton ’97 and LaJuan White M’96, helped Lopez find her way — first into the classroom through the New York City Teaching Fellows program, then into school leadership through New Leaders, a national program for aspiring principals. Lopez also earned a master’s in education from Long Island University and wrote the proposal for a small, nurturing middle school that became Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
‘A SENSE OF VALUE’
With the new funding, Lopez was able not only to take the entire school on a trip to Harvard University, but also to start a college scholarship fund and a summer program focused on the “STEAM” disciplines: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. The campaign, Lopez said, “also gave [the MHBA scholars] a sense of value that they don’t often get to experience, especially in Brownsville, where there’s so much negative media attention that speaks to crime and low socioeconomic status, but doesn’t speak to either the positive things that are happening or people coming together to create change, to implement programs, to support students.”