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Nadia Lopez: Why open a school? To close a prison

November 2, 2015

Our kids are our future, and it's crucial they believe it themselves. That's why Nadia Lopez opened an academic oasis in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the most underserved and violent neighborhoods in New York -- because she believes in every child's brilliance and capabilities. In this short, energizing talk, the founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (and a star of Humans of New York) shares how she helps her scholars envision a brighter future for themselves and their families.

Nadia Lopez - Educator
Nadia Lopez is the founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, where she is showing the world how underprivileged communities can beat the odds and create positive institutions that have a global impact. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I opened Mott Hall
Bridges Academy in 2010,
00:12
my goal was simple:
00:17
open a school to close a prison.
00:20
Now to some, this was an audacious goal,
00:24
because our school is located
in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn --
00:27
one of the most underserved
and violent neighborhoods
00:31
in all of New York City.
00:34
Like many urban schools
with high poverty rates,
00:37
we face numerous challenges,
00:42
like finding teachers who can empathize
00:44
with the complexities
of a disadvantaged community,
00:47
lack of funding for technology,
00:51
low parental involvement
00:54
and neighborhood gangs that recruit
children as early as fourth grade.
00:57
So here I was,
01:04
the founding principal of a middle school
that was a district public school,
01:07
and I only had 45 kids to start.
01:13
Thirty percent of them had special needs.
01:17
Eighty-six percent of them
were below grade level
01:21
in English and in math.
01:24
And 100 percent were living
below the poverty level.
01:27
If our children are not in our classrooms,
01:33
how will they learn?
01:36
And if they're not learning,
01:38
where would they end up?
01:40
It was evident when I would
ask my 13-year-old,
01:43
"Young man,
01:48
where do you see yourself in five years?"
01:49
And his response:
01:53
"I don't know if I'm gonna
live that long."
01:55
Or to have a young woman say to me
01:58
that she had a lifelong goal
of working in a fast-food restaurant.
02:03
To me, this was unacceptable.
02:08
It was also evident that they had no idea
02:11
that there was a landscape of opportunity
02:14
that existed beyond their neighborhood.
02:17
We call our students "scholars,"
because they're lifelong learners.
02:20
And the skills that they learn today
02:26
will prepare them for college
and career readiness.
02:28
I chose the royal colors
of purple and black,
02:32
because I want them to be reminded
that they are descendants of greatness,
02:37
and that through education,
02:42
they are future engineers,
02:44
scientists,
02:46
entrepreneurs
02:47
and even leaders who can and will
take over this world.
02:48
To date,
02:54
we have had three graduating classes,
02:55
at a 98 --
02:59
(Applause)
03:01
At a 98-percent graduation rate.
03:10
This is nearly 200 children,
03:13
who are now going to some of the most
competitive high schools
03:16
in New York City.
03:20
(Applause)
03:21
It was a cold day in January
03:29
when my scholar, Vidal Chastanet,
met Brandon Stanton,
03:32
the founder of the popular blog
"Humans of New York."
03:37
Brandon shared the story
of a young man from Brownsville
03:41
who had witnessed violence firsthand,
03:45
by witnessing a man
being thrown off of a roof.
03:49
Yet he can still
be influenced by a principal
03:54
who had opened up a school
that believes in all children.
03:57
Vidal embodies the story of so many
of our underprivileged children
04:02
who are struggling to survive,
04:07
which is why we must
make education a priority.
04:10
Brandon's post created a global sensation
04:15
that touched the lives of millions.
04:19
This resulted in 1.4 million
dollars being raised
04:22
for our scholars to attend field trips
to colleges and universities,
04:27
Summer STEAM programs,
04:33
as well as college scholarships.
04:36
You need to understand
04:39
that when 200 young people
from Brownsville visited Harvard,
04:40
they now understood
04:47
that a college of their choice
was a real possibility.
04:48
And the impossibilities
that had been imposed upon them
04:54
by a disadvantaged community
04:58
were replaced by hope and purpose.
05:00
The revolution in education
is happening in our schools,
05:05
with adults who provide love,
05:11
structure,
05:14
support
05:15
and knowledge.
05:16
These are the things
that inspire children.
05:18
But it is not an easy task.
05:22
And there are high demands
05:25
within an education system
that is not perfect.
05:28
But I have a dynamic group of educators
05:32
who collaborate as a team to determine
what is the best curriculum.
05:36
They take time beyond their school day,
05:41
and come in on weekends
05:44
and even use their own money
to often provide resources
05:45
when we do not have it.
05:50
And as the principal,
05:53
I have to inspect what I expect.
05:55
So I show up in classes
05:59
and I conduct observations
to give feedback,
06:01
because I want my teachers
to be just as successful
06:04
as the name Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
06:08
And I give them access to me
every single day,
06:11
which is why they all have
my personal cell number,
06:15
including my scholars
and those who graduated --
06:18
which is probably why I get
phone calls and text messages
06:21
at three o'clock in the morning.
06:24
(Laughter)
06:26
But we are all connected to succeed,
06:27
and good leaders do this.
06:30
Tomorrow's future is sitting
in our classrooms.
06:34
And they are our responsibility.
06:38
That means everyone in here,
06:41
and those who are watching the screen.
06:43
We must believe in their brilliance,
06:46
and remind them by teaching them
06:50
that there indeed is power in education.
06:52
Thank you.
06:57
(Applause)
06:59

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Nadia Lopez - Educator
Nadia Lopez is the founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, where she is showing the world how underprivileged communities can beat the odds and create positive institutions that have a global impact.

Why you should listen

Dr. Nadia Lopez is pioneering a path of inspired leadership. The founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a New York City Public School, Lopez became a viral sensation after one of her students was featured on the popular blog, Humans of New York. Millions of people around the world discovered the positive learning environment, high expectations and growing success rate at her school, which is located right in the middle of one of the most under-served communities in America. In 2015 a Humans of New York fundraiser raised $1.4 million to take Lopez's students on college trips that include Harvard University, Summer STEAM programs and college scholarships.

Lopez's story was shared across numerous media outlets and resulted in her guest appearing on the Ellen Show, visiting President Barack Obama at the White House and receiving the Medal of Distinction from Barnard College. In addition, Lopez was honored alongside First Lady Michelle Obama with the Change Agent Award at the Black Girls Rock show hosted on BET Networks.

Lopez's passion, belief in children and strong conviction has been unwavering in her belief that her community needs strong leadership. Despite the adversities she faced in opening Mott Hall Bridges Academy in 2010, Lopez is encouraged and inspired to see children overcome the "beautiful challenges" of Brownsville and ensuring that they are admitted into some of the most competitive high schools in New York City. Understanding the power of programming, Lopez continues to impact the lives of children through her "She Is Me" and "I Matter" initiatives, which have served thousands of youth throughout Central Brooklyn by providing workshops, forums and mentoring. Lopez continues to influence and inspire the world through her company The Lopez Effect, which offers a blueprint for personal and organizational success.

The original video is available on TED.com
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