I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Melkonian, founder and head of the American Dream Charter School in the Bronx.
Melissa is a trailblazer in the community who has poured her heart into her life’s work. The mother of three is proof that no matter where life may take you, if you follow your dreams, the opportunities are endless.
What is your background? Where were you born/raised?
I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, a border city with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. My parents were both born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States at a very young age in search of the American dream for their children. My parents came from humble beginnings in Mexico and managed to work and provide for their family and give us everything we needed so that education could be our number one priority.
What were the significant experiences/events that shaped your life? Family? Friends? Influencers?
- College: Going to college was hard. I went from El Paso, Texas, to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend Trinity College. I had a real sense of the “imposter” syndrome. Everything seemed much more difficult than high school and I didn’t feel like I belonged because I wasn’t “rich” enough or “smart” enough. However, quitting college was just not an option. It forced me to be resilient, work harder in ways that I didn’t know I could, and prove to myself that I was enough. I also met amazing people along the way and got opportunities to travel abroad, travel in the U.S., be a campus leader and a collegiate athlete.
- Traveling: My traveling began my junior year of college when I had the opportunity to go to England, Tanzania, India, the Philippines and Mexico. That year-long program helped me learn so much about myself as a Latina and my relevance in the world. The program’s focus was to learn about how globalization impacted developing countries. This sparked my love for learning about other cultures and my travels expanded tremendously after this experience.
- Education is the key for immigrants and children of immigrants to have a piece of the American dream. Being able to be a part of the solution is very humbling and I am grateful to be a part of this journey. Working in the south Bronx is very personal because a lot of the stories of our students resemble my story, the story of my parents, the story of most immigrants. It is similar to mine in that I was given the opportunity to attend college from humble beginnings and achieve more than I even knew was possible.
- Motherhood: Looking at life through the lens of a mother, while running the American Dream School, is beneficial because it forces me to think about ensuring that all students receive the same education I would want for my own children. I am the proud mother of a 7-year-old daughter, and 8-year-old and 9-year-old sons. Being a working mother comes with its challenges, but it does not deter me from wanting to continue to make a positive impact in the south Bronx community. It was in college that I realized who I “was,” meaning, being a Latina Mexican-American. Attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) opened my eyes to my own culture. I wanted to learn more about my parents, hear the stories of their pilgrimage to the USA, and ultimately get my Mexican citizenship. It is a very important part of my identity and I am very proud to be Mexican.
Tell me about your journey with the American Dream Charter School? How it began and why the Bronx?
American Dream Charter School was conceived from personal experience growing up as an English language learner to immigrant parents and our overall experience with education. Eighteen years ago, I accepted a teaching position through the NYC Teaching Fellows and was placed in a DOE middle school in the Inwood section of Manhattan – a community that had a large immigrant population. I soon moved to a charter school while pursuing my second master’s degree in Education Leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where the idea of starting my own school was born. Through the Summer Principals Academy, I began to put together ideas of designing my own school. However, in 2011, an article in the NYT caught my attention when I read how dire the statistics were for first-generation students living in the south Bronx. My passion for education was deep at this point and after reading the article, it triggered memories of my upbringing and the experiences of both myself and my parents in the US education system. I was called to “do something” to change this statistic. We are now in our 8th year as an innovating, bilingual charter school in the Bronx and we are excited to share that our founding students are now off to college!
How did you and the team manage during the height of the pandemic? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Just like the entire world, the pandemic hit our community hard. We experienced food insecurity, economic loss, and, at times, lost hope. Our entire staff definitely stepped up in ways that we didn’t even know were possible to ensure we came together as a community to support our students and their families. We provided remote learning through April 2021, when we switched to hybrid instruction. Our operations team was instrumental in being the “boots on the ground” throughout the entirety of the pandemic, working from our school building, setting up food deliveries and distributions, providing hot spots for students to have internet access at home, delivering Chromebooks to students, etc. Despite the pandemic, our first graduating class achieved a 98% graduation rate from the seniors enrolled, 95% of whom are college bound today.
What is the future of ADS?
ADS is looking to expand and offer more seats to English language learning students, starting in younger grades. Until then, we are hoping to perfect our program so that we can ensure all of our students have what they need to be successful through college, expanding our AP courses, offering non-traditional courses, as well as ensuring that the social-emotional needs of our students are met.
What advice would you give to a student who is first in their family to go to high school and/or college?
My advice would be to take this opportunity head on. Support will be offered along the way because the journey is not easy. I encourage everyone to visit a few colleges, both near home and far way, to see what college size is the best fit. When possible, bring along your parent/guardian to share in this experience and involve them in the process so that they can see the opportunities that await you!
Do you have a favorite quote that you use for inspiration or motivation?
“When you pour love into a community, the return on investment is infinite.”
This is from my first commencement speech for the Class of 2021 at The Bronx Zoo. When writing my speech, this is all I thought about: how much I loved our students and community and how, very soon, lives will be transformed through education and that, that is the American dream.