Since first opening Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, five years ago, nothing has brought Principal Nadia L. Lopez’s students as much joy as Brandon Stanton did on Monday.
After running into a young boy on the street, who attends Lopez’s middle school in Brownsville – a high-crime area – Stanton captured a photo of him sharing his story on Jan. 19 for his popular Facebook page Humans of New York.
When asked who has influenced his life the most, he responded, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
Moved by the boy’s story, Stanton found Lopez and came to the school to meet with her. Amazed by the staff and the school, he asked her what she would like to come out of this. She said she wanted her students to have the same experience she did when she went to Harvard.
Lopez always associated Harvard with wealth and high socioeconomic status. She didn t feel like she’d ever belong. But when she went to visit when she was studying at Boston College during a summer program, she realized that she was wrong and the school ended up really resonating with her. She wanted her students to know they can aim high.
Stanton started a fundraising campaign online to raise money for her students to take a trip to Harvard. They reached their goal of $100,000 in 45 minutes and even surpassed it, raising over $1 million.
Now, they’ve raised enough money to take the entire school – which covers sixth through eighth grade – this spring and every incoming sixth grade class to come. With the leftover money, they plan on organizing a summer program that will help close some achievement gaps.
Lopez told the students in an assembly on Monday, where they “clapped and screamed so loud.”
“So many students were coming up to me and hugging me,” Lopez tells PEOPLE. “They asked, ‘Wait that’s the really smart school, right? So we’re smart?’ and I replied that they are very smart!”
Rhonda Arnold, an eighth grader and the vice president of the student council at the school, couldn t wait to brag to her parents.
“When I first found out, I was out of words,” Rhonda tells PEOPLE. “I was so surprised. I never thought we’d be able to take a trip like that.”
Rhonda feels grateful to have Lopez as her principal.
“She encourages us and always tells us that we matter and can become something even with what society may say,” Rhonda says.
Lopez has a special approach when teaching her students’ lessons. She doesn t outright suspend them unless they’ve done things numerous times. Instead, she tries to be proactive when dealing with them.
“Children want to be heard and some students are angry with their life circumstances,” Lopez says. “My goal is to remind them that with every choice they make comes a consequence and a benefit. Based off the choice, it directly impacts what the next step will be.”
Lopez feels humbled to be one of her student’s “most influential person” and finds it symbolic that he said it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“It came at a time when I thought my work wasn’t making a difference and there was a lot of violence going on in the world. I could see the defeat in my staff’s eyes,” Lopez says.
The school’s color is purple, representing royalty. The students aren t the only ones who have to wear uniforms – the entire staff wears purple and black every day, including Lopez.
“Our school color makes me feel royal,” Rhonda says. “I feel like I have to work hard in this school because royal people don’t just sit down and do nothing, they work.”