Delivering the American dream

Melissa Meza Melkonian ’03 builds on her past to make the future better for  her students

By Rhea Hirshman

graduating students in caps and gowns
The ADS Class of 2021 celebrates at the school’s first graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of The American Dream School

On a warm Saturday in late June 2021, gathered on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, 64 graduates of The American Dream School (ADS) received their high school diplomas. Resplendent in their white gowns and gold sashes, the students were cheered in English and Spanish by their families and friends, by their teachers and school staff, and, perhaps most of all, by ADS’s founder and head of school, Melissa Meza Melkonian ’03, whose own journey as the child of immigrant parents was mirrored in theirs.

Melkonian was born and raised near the Texas-Mexico border in a small town outside El Paso. “My parents, Natividad and Edgar Meza, emigrated from Mexico in search of the American dream for their children,” she says. “To them—they had gone only through sixth grade—the American dream meant access to the best education possible.”

Active in high school in everything from softball to student government to the Spanish honor society, Melkonian figured she would attend college in Texas, which allows high school graduates with grades in the top 10th percentile to attend any public university in the state.

Then, walking past the guidance office one day, she saw the pamphlet: Trinity College, with all four New England seasons displayed in full color. “I remember thinking, ‘What is this place?’ ” she says. She visited the campus through a program geared to first-generation college students, completed her application, and was accepted.

Melkonian was thrilled. Her mother, concerned about distance and unfamiliarity, was less enthusiastic and urged her to attend school closer to home. “But I was head over heels in love with the college,” Melkonian says. Eventually, her mother accepted the idea of her daughter’s striking out for faraway Connecticut.

Melissa Meza Melkonian ’03, founder and head of school of The American Dream School in the Bronx.
Photo by Michael Kamber

Her first months at Trinity were not easy. She wasn’t sure where she fit. A star student whose good grades in advanced courses had come easily, Melkonian found herself struggling academically, socially, and emotionally. At midterm, she called her mother to say she wanted to come home. “No,” her mother told her. “You will stay there and figure it out.”

Melkonian turned to Clyde McKee, the professor teaching her “American National Government” class. Between his support and becoming involved in other activities—she started practicing with the softball team and working in the Admissions Office—Melkonian found her footing and her people. “I had never been down so low,” she says, “but everyone I opened up to helped to lift me. It was eye-opening to be supported like that.”

McKee, who passed away in 2011, remained a mentor throughout Melkonian’s Trinity career and beyond. She keeps in touch with this Trinity family—five of the six McKee siblings are Trinity alums—corresponding regularly with McKee’s widow, Mary. The family has supported Melkonian’s work with donations to ADS, while son Clyde has shared his expertise in commercial insurance and daughter Deanne ’81 is a resource in matters related to fundraising and philanthropy. “My dad dedicated his life to those he believed had the drive, skills, courage, and persistence to make a difference in the world,” says the younger Clyde McKee. “When he found someone like Melissa, he did whatever he could to support and encourage them.”

During a student trip sophomore year to Washington, D.C., with the McKees, Melkonian was introduced to a member of Congress and had a private tour of the Capitol. “I love history and politics,” she says. “I was starstruck and wanted more.” For her junior year, she was accepted to the Bard College International Honors Program, a yearlong study of globalization focusing on England, Tanzania, India, the Philippines, and Mexico.

That experience changed her life.

“I was traveling with 30 other Americans in a world that was not loving Americans so much,” she says. “I learned about myself, about my place in the world as an American and a Mexican-American. We encountered so much injustice that never makes the news. I came home angry and with a fire in my belly to do something.”

She considered a teaching gig with the Peace Corps. But her mother said, “Teach here. There are so many places in the U.S. that need good teachers.”

Melkonian stands outside the school she founded. Photo by Michael Kamber

After graduating with a double major in political science and public policy, Melkonian entered the New York City Teaching Fellows program, moved to the Bronx, and worked toward her master’s degree in special education and bilingual education. Her teaching placement was a trial by fire: fresh out of college, in a mixed-grade and mixed-needs special education classroom. Something was wrong, she thought. Why were fifth through eighth graders in the same classroom? Because they were immigrants? Because they spoke Spanish as a first language and had reading disabilities?

After three years, Melkonian moved to a charter school in the Bronx while pursuing a second master’s degree in education leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College, for which one of the requirements was designing a new school. “The school I designed then looks nothing like the school I run now, but the exercise was great practice,” she says. When she read a 2011 New York Times article detailing the dire dropout statistics for first-generation students in the South Bronx—a heavily Mexican-American area—the vision for The American Dream School was born. “I was convinced,” she says, “that these students were fully capable of being successful with the right support for them and their families.”

Her 2013 application to the state Department of Education was accepted on the first try. Between soliciting the neighborhood parents to enroll their children and having to find the school’s initial location—“an approval of your charter application does not come with a building,” she notes—she was able to open in the fall of 2014 with a class of sixth graders.

Now, ADS enrolls about 600 students in 6th through 12th grades. It is a totally bilingual learning environment, with a full complement of extracurricular activities and a mission of fostering leadership qualities and academic excellence in both English and Spanish. Against heavy odds, including the impact of COVID-19 on a highly vulnerable community, the school has survived and thrived. This first graduating class had a high school graduation rate of 98 percent—significantly above the borough’s average—with 95 percent of those graduates heading to college.

Melissa Melkonian ’03 welcomes middle school students on the first day of school in 2016. Before the pandemic, Melkonian—accompanied by music—greeted students this way every day.
Photo courtesy of The American Dream School

What does not show in those statistics is the support the school gives to its families, from a food pantry to translation services to assistance with legal matters. “We offer these services not to replace other nonprofit organizations,” Melkonian says, “but as an extension of who we are as a family and a community. Our students can’t learn if their most basic needs are not met; we offer a holistic approach to educating our students, our families.”

When Melkonian’s own mother visited the school about five years ago, she commented on how at home she felt in the bilingual environment. “I wish it had been like this when you were in school,” she told her daughter. “Knowing my mother’s experience with my schools is the reason behind how we operate,” Melkonian says. “We will dignify our parents, give them a voice, and involve them in their children’s education.” 

None of the school’s success and resiliency would be possible, Melkonian emphasizes, without the full-hearted support of faculty and staff who work with students at all hours of the day and night and students who readily give up their Saturdays to move boxes or to help distribute food. She would love to see some of those students at Trinity; a handful likely will apply for next year. “I got to Trinity by accident,” she says, “and the experience changed my life. And I think that Trinity needs my kids.”