HARI SREENIVASAN: New York City has many distinctions, but one of its more dubious ones is that it has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
Schools with predominantly black and brown students fall way behind majority white schools in achievement levels.
Tonight, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, in her regular series on solutions to racism, talks with a principal in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn who is attempting to defy the odds.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nadia Lopez, thank you for joining us.
NADIA LOPEZ, Principal, Mott Hall Bridges Academy: Thank you for having me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You started a school in one of the poorest and also one of the most violent areas of New York City, Brownsville.
NADIA LOPEZ: Pretty much, the Department of Education decided that the area of need was Brownsville, and my proposal fit the bill.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What kind of proposal was it?
NADIA LOPEZ: My proposal really was a STEM-focused school at the time, science, technology, engineering and math.
So I wanted to empower children of color to be represented in industries that are under-represented by people of color.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you described your early days at this school as insane.
Why? And how insane did it get?
NADIA LOPEZ: I literally had a child set fire to the bathroom. I would have children choke each other out, to the point that the eyes would start rolling back.
I had parents come to my office, put down their bags and ready to fight just because they thought I might have said something to their child that was what they considered out of pocket or inappropriate. There was challenges in terms of the academics.
And so these children were made to feel as though they weren’t going to accomplish much. And, unfortunately, they came from households where parents weren’t as educated.
So, it started with the children, and then the parents soon feel in line, but that took hard work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you also talked about teachers that you had to work with because they were not engaged.
NADIA LOPEZ: One of the things that I had to do with my teachers was to actually walk them around the community for them to see what we’re up against every single day.
And so, once my teachers were able to see it from the ground, by us actually walking through the housing developments and seeing for themselves the lack of employment, the lack of resources, so many young men who are on the streets at 12:00, 1:00 in the afternoon who are doing nothing, this is drawing our kids every single day.
So, when they leave us at 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon, that’s all they know, to hang out on the streets and have no other purpose.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, actually having the teachers see where these young people come from helped them to be more engaged?
NADIA LOPEZ: Yes.
We have to start engaging in the solutions to combat what are the problems that exist here in Brownsville. When you sit with a child who’s been misbehaving, and they talk about the anger that they have had since they were 6 because their father left, or you speak to a child who themselves have had children, right, in middle school, or you have a child who’s competing with seven other kids in a household and they live in a two-bedroom apartment, again, the judgment people pass is like, well, their parents could have made better decisions.
But lack of education, lack of resources can cause history to repeat itself. And so, sometimes, these children just need somebody to listen to them. Sometimes, they just need a safe space where they can be distracted with something good, because all they see in the media is someone like them dying. All they know is that prison is an option.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What, in your experience, is relevant and replicable in other schools in the same situation as your school is?
NADIA LOPEZ: I literally take all of my sixth-graders. Every single year, we walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.
I want them to understand that there is a connection between their past, their present and their future. So, their past is fifth grade, their present is while they’re here with us in middle school, but their future is, as we walk across this bridge, seeing what is lying ahead.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what’s been some of the experiences? Because you have talked about the fact that these kids have never been across a bridge. They grab onto you.
NADIA LOPEZ: They do. They are fearful. They are fearful that the bridge will collapse. They are fearful that they won’t make it over.
And these are some of the toughest kids who can be the most challenging, who teachers will say they are disrespectful and will grab onto a teacher and be like, please don’t let me fall.
We have taken them to the South Street Seaport, and they just sit and watch the water, because they have never just seen boats or had opportunities of just having that experience.
And so, for hours, when I first started doing it as just a special needs teacher, the kids sat for two or three hours, and it was the most peaceful and serene scene that you have ever seen.
And shouldn’t every child have that opportunity to not hear gunshots, to not feel that they’re not safe?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what do you think the systemic solutions are to this?
NADIA LOPEZ: First off, we need to have a conversation.
There are a lot of people making decisions at the top, and they’re not willing to sit with us in the trenches and look in our classrooms and ask the questions: What is the challenge here? What do you need?
Our budgets aren’t made for all of the things that they are asking us to do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s at stake?
NADIA LOPEZ: If we don’t show up, then we lose generations of children, and we’re just repeating what I often say is generational genocide, that when our children aren’t learning here in our classrooms, then they can’t teach the next generation to be better, they can’t teach them to aspire, to want more.
That’s why we plant their feet in the places we want them to go. We take them to high schools. We take them to colleges. We bring people in from the outside who have various careers in industries that they’re not represented, because when do those people ever come to Brownsville and tell them their stories?
And that’s the other thing that we fail to do. We fail to share our stories. I think what was significant about mine is that people were like, here’s this principal who was about to quit because she said she felt broken.
And it got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t be the superhero. I can’t act like I’m going to show up to work every single day and this is easy and I can do it.
No. I’m tired. And it’s OK, because all of us hit that wall, right? And what was resounding is that the world, the world said, education is important and was willing to step up and say, we want to help these children.
And I’m so grateful to that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You said in the book that you were moved by the power of education to transform even the most hardened students.
There’s a lesson there. There’s a solution.
NADIA LOPEZ: This community has heard the negative for so long.
What my team and I are doing is combating that. And every day, we’re telling them that they are Brownsville’s brilliance, that they are those diamonds and they can shine bright, that they are scholars, they are lifelong learners.
We’re pouring into them the positive that they so deserve, so that they can thrive.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Nadia Lopez, thank you very much.
NADIA LOPEZ: Well, thank you for having me.