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