January Person of the Month: Nadia Cruz-Perez
Nadia is the principal and co-founder of Young Voices Academy of the Bronx. which has partnered with Turnaround for Children since it first opened in 2013. Turnaround Program Director Ronni Gambardella nominated Nadia as “Person of the Month” because “she is a true partner – Nadia makes Turnaround a part of everything Young Voices Academy does, is eager understand the science behind learning and supports new initiatives such as mindfulness and mindsets.”
THE 180: You only worked with Turnaround for a few months at Archer Elementary before founding Young Voices Academy of the Bronx. Why was it so important for Turnaround to be part of the school when it opened?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: (At Archer) I saw the collaboration between Turnaround, the guidance counselor, the teachers and the administration. They brought social-emotional support to the table and that was something that was very important to me. I’ve taught in many different schools. And one of the things that always stood out to me was that the social-emotional needs of the students were not always met. Some schools really tried, but they didn’t have the capacity to meet all the needs of the students.
I knew that in developing my school, I wanted the social-emotional aspect to have as much importance as the academics. I didn’t want it to be something that you just paid attention to when a child is in trouble. I wanted it to be something that was embedded into the school culture from the minute that the kids walked through the door because it empowers every child.
THE 180: Last spring, we interviewed Youche Chia (Guidance Counselor at Young Voices Academy) and her responses were very in sync with yours. How long have you known Chia?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: I’ve known Chia for about 13 years. There was nobody else I could open the school with but Chia. I really respected her views on education and the importance of social-emotional support. People see us interact and always comment that we’re such a good team. We just balance each other.
THE 180: What strategies or practices has Turnaround brought to Young Voices that you find most helpful?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: I think two things: One is instructional practices, like cooperative learning structures. When children are involved in cooperative learning structures, they are socializing with other children, they’re communicating with other children and their voices are being validated. Everyone’s able to contribute to the discussion and it really pushes the kids academically, socially and emotionally.
In addition to that, having a connection to mental health providers is such a valuable piece. Schools try to meet the needs of the students, but with just a guidance counselor or social worker in the building, you really can’t. Having [a community mental health provider] connection lets us tell parents, “We know you’re struggling with this area. This is a partnership that we have and Turnaround can help you connect with them.”
THE 180: Turnaround has helped you introduce mindfulness meditation into the classroom. How is that going?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: I see children ask for it and remind their teachers, “it’s that time.” And if they have a sub, they let the substitute teacher know, “You know, at this time, we have to do this.” It’s given students the tools and knowledge to be aware of what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it, so they’re better able to make decisions on how they are going to react about it. And if you ask the kids about it, they will tell you, “I’m in stress mode. So my brain is feeling this way.” And they’ll re-enact it for you via the most adorable conversations.
THE 180: We know from the Turnaround team at Young Voices that you’re a very hands-on principal. So tell me, do you have a typical day?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: [LAUGH] No, not at all. I know parents find it strange that, whenever I get the opportunity, I’ll answer the phone. And if the nurse isn’t here, I’ll treat the kids. I mean, yesterday I was taking temperatures. I keep a thermometer at my desk. For me, it’s important to connect with the kids and their families. I love that I can pick up the phone and I know whose parent it is just by their voice.
The job of a principal is not easy. I know every principal can say the same thing, that a typical day doesn’t exist. I don’t know what their typical days are like, but mine really have a lot to do with asking the kids how their weekend was or about their baby brother.
THE 180: What do you think the most important thing is that children need for success?
NADIA CRUZ-PEREZ: I’ll go back to my own experience with education. Kids need to know they matter. For me, I didn’t do well in school until I was in the fourth grade and a teacher went out of her way to let me know that I mattered. And once she did that, I started to perform better in school. I think that’s something really, really important. When kids feel like they have a voice, they want to do better.