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Fighting education inequality with empathy, opportunity

Dr. Nadia Lopez is a middle school principal in one of the most underserved and violent neighborhoods in NYC. We spoke with her about education inequality.

9 min read


Fighting education inequality with empathy, opportunity

Ryan Lash/TED

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“I opened a school to close a prison.” – Nadia Lopez

Brownsville is one of the most underserved and violent neighborhoods in New York City. Like so many school districts with high levels of poverty, finding ways to improve disadvantaged students’ lives both inside and outside the classroom can seem impossible.

In the face of such harrowing odds, educator Nadia Lopez opened a middle school. At Mott Hall Bridges Academy, she created an environment where underprivileged students are supported by empathetic educators, exposed to new educational opportunities and prepared to attend top colleges. The school boasts a 98% graduation rate.

Lopez is one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, chief visionary officer at The Lopez Effect, author of The Bridge to Brilliance and principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. We spoke with her about the top issues facing education today, what it means to lead in the current environment and the unique solutions implemented at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. Here’s the interview. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


SB: In your TED Talk, you cite four main challenges for students in your neighborhood: a lack of teachers who can empathize with their experiences, limited funding for classroom technology, low parental involvement and pressure from neighborhood gangs. How does MBHA address these issues?

First and foremost, in order to address the issues in Brownsville, I had to learn about the community. It’s one of the most impoverished and violent neighborhoods in New York City. We have the largest number of housing projects in the United States and 41% of the residents live below the poverty line. 

We don’t have Starbucks, bookstores or dine-in restaurants. Children are recruited by gangs by the time they are in fourth grade and many parents have a limited education.

When hiring a teacher, there is a committee composed of various staff members and scholars to establish a culture of high expectations and a firm understanding that our priority are the children. We take an annual field trip throughout the neighborhood to serve as a reminder of where our scholars live and the hardships and safety issues they encounter once they leave our school to go home.

We lacked funding for technology because we had to prioritize offering STEAM-focused electives, eight athletic teams and an afterschool program that ends at 6 p.m. daily. The afterschool program is important; it deters scholars — which is what I call my students because they need to understand learning never stops — from engaging in gang activity. We host a lot of events because parents like participating in activities that showcase their children’s talents or academic achievements.

SB: What social-emotional and mental health programs does MHBA offer to your scholars and their families?

At MHBA, we established various social-emotional and mental health programs to deal with significant issues of trauma that our scholars and their families have experienced. Four years ago, we introduced an initiative for every adult at MHBA to serve as an advisor for 12-15 scholars. We call the advisors, “Champions.” They do weekly check-ins, provide one-to-one support, monitor academic progress, and communicate with parents about any academic or social emotional concerns.
For the past 10 years a mental health provider has been contracted to offer our teachers and parents emotional support on a weekly basis.
Through the Mayor’s initiative, The Shepherds Program, we have an additional guidance counselor and social worker who conducts home visits, provides counseling services, and identifies community-based organizations that offer free or low-cost resources to parents.
Our sixth-grade classes participate in a year-long character education class to help with their middle school transition. Our eighth graders also take a year-long guidance class that supports their transition into high school, providing them with social media etiquette and tackling real-world issues.
Although we are currently on remote learning, these services have continued, including mental health support groups that meet weekly for our parents and staff members.

SB: How can education reduce inequality in society?

Inequality exists because of ignorance that marginalizes people based on their race, religions, identity, ethnicity and sexual orientation. When we are intentional about teaching all children and exposing them to curriculum that reflects diversity, then they can begin to learn the importance of inclusion. Representation matters. Ultimately as they grow to become future leaders, managers and community advocates, they will be in a position of establishing policies and creating spaces that promote the equality needed in our society.

SB: Leading by example appears to be a core element of how you conduct yourself as a principal and entrepreneur. What leadership advice can you provide for others?

One of the fundamental principles I believe in is showing up. How you show up, when you show up and where you show up establishes what people think of your character, determines your integrity, and it builds trust with others.

SB: The coronavirus pandemic has caused school closures around the world. How are you, your staff and your scholars managing the transition to online learning? What challenges have you encountered and what are you doing to address them?

Online learning in New York City — the epicenter of the pandemic — presented a set of challenges that began with making sure that our scholars had appropriate devices and access to get online. In many households, there may only be one computer with multiple family members who need to use it. In other homes, they are using Kindles, Xboxes, and cell phones to access the virtual classrooms. 

Eventually, those who needed a handheld device, have received iPads that were mailed to their homes from the NYC Department of Education. Additionally, with thirty-two percent of our school’s population with IEPs, we had to immediately figure out how to ensure our scholars with special needs would receive their support services, which included every teacher delivering live instruction to meet all learning abilities.

It took a few weeks of trial-and-error but our entire team can now provide live teaching. Plus, our paraprofessionals and guidance staff created a flexible schedule to avoid burnout and disengagement by our team and the scholars.

SB: How do you see the coronavirus pandemic changing systems in education — funding, equity, instruction and professional development — here in the US?

To be honest I don’t know how much education systems will change. One thing is for certain, it took a pandemic for schools to be thrusted into the 21st century with full-time use of technology for instruction. But this global crisis also revealed that many of our teachers were not prepared for virtual learning and there are tremendous inequities within poor communities throughout our nation that include inadequate funding for technology and professional development.

It is my hope that teachers and school-based support team members receive training on how to provide virtual instruction before the return in the fall. Partnerships need to be established with tech companies to develop products that are user-friendly and aligned to instructional needs of teachers and children. But most importantly prioritizing the mental health of students, parents and staff members will be critical considering the amount of stress that has come from isolation and the abrupt move to online learning.

SB: Social media appears to be integral to your professional life, particularly in showing thought-leadership and raising awareness for the issues you’re passionate about. What can other educators and leaders do to make social media work for them?

Social media offers a platform that can be used as a tool to share stories related to your work and control the narrative. It is a space. It is an opportunity to establish a community where relationships are built, and networks established. But also, learn new strategies and remain connected to what’s happening in education, nationally and globally.

SB: January 19th marked the five-year anniversary of the now famous Humans of New York Facebook post that featured your scholar, Vidal Chastenet. How has your life changed since then?

Since the viral Humans of New York Post, I have established The Lopez Effect, a movement to promote innovation and social changes to combat issues of inequities and inequalities in education. After becoming a Top Global Teacher Prize Finalist in 2016, I travel the world to serve as ambassador for the Varkey Foundation, which allows me to meet teachers and administrators globally and learn about the challenges they face in education.
I wrote the book, The Bridge to Brilliance, a memoir about my journey in opening Mott Hall Bridges Academy. I co-authored Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which  highlights successful classroom models where innovation is evident and there is a strong focus on communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. And I have also delivered keynotes addresses at various well-known conferences such as ISTE, ILA and NCEA.

I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities but the continuous stress related to work affected my health tremendously, resulting in a year-long medical leave of absence to recover. I now use my ElevatED online platform to promote sustainability and personal development to help others improve their lives.

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Education Director of Content Kanoe Namahoe contributed to this story.

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