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Breakthrough Philadelphia helps students go to college

  • derrick mclean
    Dale Mezzacappa

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When Derrick McLean was in 6th grade at A.B. Day Elementary School in Mount Airy, his mind wasn’t focused on whether he would ever attend college.  

But that changed one day when a someone came to his school to talk about a special program being offered to the students. Sure, it would require him to give up part of his summer and one day a week after school. But the idea appealed to him.

 “I was excited to do it,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily the best student at the time, but I wanted to better myself so I could excel and become more advanced.”

McLean, barely 12 years old at the time, became the only student at Day that year to sign up for a program called Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia. Begun in 1995 at Germantown Friends School as a branch of a national program called Summerbridge, it recruits promising middle school students in disadvantaged schools and supports them to complete their education and enroll in college.

“I was a sponge absorbing information,” said McLean, who graduated last month from Bodine High School for International Affairs and is on his way to Mansfield University in north-central Pennsylvania. “We took trips to Washington, D.C. It was good because it had a fun aspect and was a learning environment at the same time.”

Breakthrough is one of several similar organizations that operate in Philadelphia, and it is one of the oldest. In its more than two decades of existence, it has helped hundreds of students, most from families without a background in going to college.

The Philadelphia chapter is part of the Breakthrough Collaborative, which operates 33 sites in 26 cities across the country. The Philadelphia chapter identifies students in 6th grade, helps them get into selective city high schools, and guides those who stay with the program – most students do – to get into college. Now, it is embarking on a new initiative to help them stay there and graduate.

About 60 to 65 students are recruited each year from schools near the program's two sites, one at GFS and the other at Drexel University. Last month, 48 students who are graduating high school, including McLean, participated in a graduation ceremony at Drexel.

Robbin Smart, Breakthrough’s newly hired executive director, said that 92 percent of the students who participate enter college prep high schools, 94 percent are attending four-year colleges and universities, and 84 percent persist through sophomore year.

Smart and David Kern, Breakthrough board chair, said that the organization is now dedicating more energy to following students through college. For starters, that will include sending care packages and getting them mentors. It has created an alumni association to facilitate keeping in touch.

“We are trying to raise money to help with this,” said Kern, who is director of the lower school at Penn Charter in East Falls, a K-12 Quaker school.

“Breakthrough does two things that are really different,” said Smart, who formerly worked in admissions for Girard College and as deputy CEO for New Foundations Charter School. “Our enrichment program is different; we follow students for six years. We give them the skills necessary to go to college, and I believe to persist through college.”

The other component that distinguishes Breakthrough from most groups like it, she said, is “training the next generation of teachers to obtain best practices and succeed in the environment of urban education.”

One of the ways that the program pursues that second goal – promoting the development of K-12 teachers – is through its Teaching Fellow internship. College students are hired to help with the summer program. Some of them know they want teaching careers and others may be persuaded. 

Almost all the Breakthrough participants come from District and charter schools in Philadelphia; a handful attend Catholic schools. Occasionally, benefactors will help a student enroll in a private school.

One of those students is Avione “Ivy” Williams, 18, who was recruited for Breakthrough while attending the Overbrook Education Center in West Philadelphia. She went to Bodine for her freshman year, but then transferred to Springside, a private girls' school in Chestnut Hill (now merged with boys’ Chestnut Hill Academy).

“I always wanted to go to a private school, and they found a sponsor willing to pay for me to go,” she said.

Now preparing to enter Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college in Maine, she intends to go to medical school and is considering becoming an orthopedic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, or an obstetrician-gynecologist. “I am open to any options in the medical field,” she said.

Asia Kaiser, 18, was at Masterman when she got involved with Breakthrough during the summer after 6th grade. She will be attending Princeton University.

Of Breakthrough, she said, “Their summer program was really helpful in teaching me better study habits and making me more focused.”

Ainya Gray, recruited from Andrew Hamilton Elementary School in West Philadelphia, will attend Peirce College in Philadelphia. She hopes to become a paralegal and “work my way up” in the legal profession. She helps to take care of her sick mother, so she decided to stay close to home.

“From the moment I walked in, a lot of people had the same mindset,” said Gray, 18, who also attended Bodine. She said she was one of those students who loved learning, going to school, and participating in enrichment activities. Breakthrough had all those characteristics.

The application process, she recalled, is rigorous; she wrote several essays, one about how taking care of her mother “helped build up my character as a person. Breakthrough seemed like the right program for me.”

And the college guidance component is focused and detailed.

“It prepares you for college financially, mentally, and academically,” said McLean. “We applied to colleges in the summer; it also taught me how to look at loans and choose the right loan and the wrong loan. It’s also making sure I’m ready and choosing the right college for me, not necessarily the best college in the world, but the right college for me.”

The Philadelphia chapter’s origin at Germantown Friends more than 20 years ago started when several of the elite Quaker school’s leaders were looking for ways to make life and education better for students who lived in its neighborhood. GFS had committed to staying in Germantown and is just blocks from some of the city’s most low-income schools. One of those was Pastorius, on Chelten Avenue.

Kern, who was the middle school principal at GFS at the time, was involved in the genesis.

“I helped the middle school close its classrooms so Summerbridge could come in. I’ve been with the program since,” he said.

Peggy Greenawalt, then a GFS parent and trustee, remembers running into Pastorius’ dynamic but beleaguered principal, who was trying to find ways to enhance the lives of her students, nearly all of whom were from families living in poverty.

Greenawalt soon committed herself to find ways to get kids at Pastorius a better education.

“The kids at GFS had resources nobody else had. I started by arranging field trips to the Franklin Institute and other places that would be intellectually stimulating; I said this is what I do with my kids. But then I realized that this kind of approach did little to change the trajectory of somebody’s life,” she said.

At the same time, a GFS graduate was pushing to start a Summerbridge chapter at GFS, Greenawalt said, and “this sounded like an opportunity to be more focused in your attention and have outcomes that were measurable, instead of just providing a happy experience.”

She is particularly interested in the mission to create a new generation of urban teachers. Her son, Matt, now teaches in the New York City public schools after getting his start as a Summerbridge teacher while at GFS.

“He’s been teaching 8th-grade math for 10 years,” Greenawalt said. “I just keep thinking, one good teacher can change the lives of 100 kids.”

McLean hopes to fulfill the promise of the program in both of its goals. At Mansfield, he will study to become a math teacher. He will start as a Breakthrough teaching intern this summer.

“I want to be a teacher,” he said. “Growing up, I realized I only had one African American male teacher, which doesn’t seem that noticeable. But it had a huge impact on me.”

He hopes to come back to teach in a low-income neighborhood.

“A lot of African American young males grew up without fathers, and African American male teachers or mentors play a huge part in their lives,” he said.

Plus, “I love math, and I feel like I can give that back to my students.”

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.