Nadia Lopez was ready to quit. She couldn’t fall asleep without a pill, or function without coffee. Stress triggered an autoimmune abdominal disease that felt like her insides were burning.
Four years earlier, Lopez had founded Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a sixth-to-eighth-grade middle school in Brownsville, to tend to kids in a dirt-poor, violence-plagued neighborhood. But the love and attention she showered on the city’s most challenging students didn’t matter, she felt, because “the numbers” — their scores on the tough Common Core exams — still came in well below average.
“I was tired. I was angry. I had my laptop ready to write my letter of resignation,” Lopez, 39, told The Post.
Then a miracle happened. On Jan. 9, 2015, eighth-grader Vidal Chastanet popped up on the Humans of New York blog of photographer Brandon Stanton. Asked who influenced him most in life, the hoodie-wearing youth replied, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us,” he said. “She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. She tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
The Facebook post went viral. Stanton launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to send Mott Hall students on visits to Harvard University — which Lopez believed would inspire them. It raised $1.4 million. The White House invited Lopez and Vidal to meet President Obama.
Instead of quitting, Lopez was fortified. She tells her gripping story in “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World,” out Aug. 30.
Lopez got off to a rough start after winning approval to open Mott Hall in 2010, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s program to create new small schools.
That first year the halls “felt like an asylum rather than a school — crazy,” Lopez recalls. “Kids screamed at the top of their lungs or walked out of rooms in the middle of class.” Every day, kids fought and bullied each other. They once set fire to the bathroom with toilet paper.
Lopez, who grew up in Crown Heights, knew the roots of their incivility. “You have a lot of kids dealing with abandonment, family deaths, poverty, low self-esteem. Some are just raising themselves.”
That doesn’t mean she excuses their shenanigans. She will suspend a violent child — like a boy who smashed a classmate’s jaw. But she avoids suspensions for mere defiance. Like a detective, she talks with kids to learn whether their acting out stems from a problem at home, or frustration because they don’t grasp the math or readings, and she helps.
If that doesn’t work, Lopez confronts parents. She once drove to a mom’s workplace to discuss her son’s sleeping in class. She has “mandated” parents to sit in their child’s classes all day. That usually does the trick.
Lopez, a divorced mom with a teen daughter, left a corporate job at Verizon to embark on a career in education. Before Mott Hall, she taught at Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts in Fort Greene.
Lopez became determined to prove wrong any who doubt her students. Ninety-eight percent are black or Hispanic, and only 7 percent arrive ready for sixth-grade math and English. Tracking each student on her “data wall,” she strives for steady increases.
Her teachers tutor after school and over the summer. Each staffer, including Lopez, serves as a “champion” for 10 to 12 kids each to guide them into good high schools. Every spring, they take kids — if they behave and work hard — on trips to Harvard and other colleges, opening their eyes to a world of opportunities beyond Brownsville.
Lopez is gratified now that she stuck to her “calling.” Vidal, the student who appeared on Humans of New York, attends a Catholic high school on a scholarship. Lopez expects all her grads to go to college or pursue a well-paying trade.
“What we’re doing here can be done anywhere,” she said. “All it takes is vision, ingenuity, hard work and faith.”