Humans of New York feature leads to Mott Hall Bridges Academy principal publishing a book

On Jan. 19, 2015, the blog Humans of New York posted a photo of a middle schooler in Brownsville who said that his principal has influenced him the most in his life.

That post, which drew more than 1.2 million likes on Facebook and nearly 300,000 on Instagram, attracted worldwide attention and spawned a campaign that raised more than $1.4 million for the student’s school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy. And now, there’s a book.

“The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” (out Aug. 30 from Viking), by Mott Hall principal and founder Nadia Lopez, details what it takes to run a school in a high-needs neighborhood today, from the demands of the students, parents and staff to the school’s focus on both academic and social development.

Much like Humans of New York and the subsequent press coverage, Lopez wanted to spark a conversation about education and “what’s working and what’s not working.”

“Education hasn’t been sexy, we’re not considered rock stars or celebrities,” Lopez said. “I think that one of the things that I try to use the platform for [is], how do we come together as a community to really impact change in education?”

For Lopez, part of that change involves addressing the inequities that exist in education.

At Mott Hall, for instance, there is a high rate of students with special needs, from learning disabilities to emotional disturbances, Lopez said. (For the 2015-16 school year, 26% of students at Mott Hall had special needs, compared to 18.7% of public school students citywide, according to city Department of Education data.) The school also has a high rate of students who receive free or reduced lunch, Lopez said.

“All of our schools are assessed the same exact way, but no one takes into consideration that I have a kid coming in on a third or fourth grade reading level, that we have parents who cannot support and fundraise and get thousands of dollars so we have a surplus of money so we get the resources that we need,” Lopez said.

The Humans of New York phenomenon helped, of course, to shine a spotlight on the challenges that exist in underserved city schools and those working on the “front lines” of education.

“It invigorated me,” Lopez said. “It’s charged me with this platform to use my voice, to say, ‘We do exist. We’re here.’”

Thanks to the fundraising campaign, the school has been able to build on what it already does, including its notable college field trips for middle schoolers. Part of the $1.4 million raised goes to sending all students on college field trips in the city and beyond, starting with Harvard University in the sixth grade, a New York school in the seventh grade and a historically black college in the eighth grade.

“Having the money for our kids to get on a bus and go to Harvard, that was something we couldn’t afford,” Lopez said. “It was, are we going to do that or going to buy paper?”

The funding also bolstered a five-week summer program that cover subjects in academics and the arts, as well as set up a college scholarship fund.

But the work doesn’t stop there. This school year, its seventh since it was founded in 2010, Mott Hall is looking to develop a partnership for its year-old veterinarian program with St. George’s University in Grenada so students can have the opportunity to learn globally. It’s also bringing in outside mentors for its Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship program, during which students pitch a good or service that would impact their community. Lopez also wants to start a juice bar at the school using vegetables grown in its community garden.

There are challenges, too.

“Our attendance levels for the kids coming in, that’s a real problem we’re going to face,” Lopez said. “I have kids literally with 100 days of lateness and 40 days of absences. So it’s a matter of, how are we going to encourage these kids [through praise and celebration] to prioritize their education and also hold themselves and their families accountable?”

Lopez hopes readers of her book, from other educators to those just interested in education, continue to be inspired by the school’s story.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’m doing anything that someone else could not be inspired to do,” Lopez said. “I’m just doing what makes sense, and what’s in the best interest of children.”