Project Breakthrough

“Project Breakthrough:” National Influence

Project by: Ashley Martin, fall 2016

To increase the academic opportunity for highly motivated, underserved students and get them into college ready to succeed; and inspire and develop the next generation of teachers and educational leaders.

The above quote is the mission of the Breakthrough Collaborative, a national non-profit group founded in 1978 at University High School in San Francisco, California. At its founding, it was originally known as “Summerbridge.” The aim of this group is to breach the achievement gap through summer and school year enrichment programs for rising 6th-9th grade students. These programs are no cost to the students or their families. Breakthrough is an intensive six-week program that provides students with educational help. Students take four core classes, generally math, science, writing, and reading, as well as a foreign language, an academic elective, and a mini course. The languages offered vary from site to site based on what the staff can provide, but you can expect to find the usual languages: French, Spanish, German, Latin, ASL, and more. The academic elective courses aim to continue to expand students' knowledge but entertain as well. Some examples of courses are “Cincinnati History,” “Journalism,” or “African Dance.” Finally, the mini courses are more of a brain break for students, a chance to have fun at “school.” Mini courses could be classes like soccer, crafting, gardening, and more.

Breakthrough hosts the largest pre-service teaching organization in the country. Annually there are around 1,000 undergraduate teaching fellows that participate in the program. The term “teaching fellow” describes those undergraduate students who participate in a teaching residency with Breakthrough. Since its opening in the 70s, Breakthrough has expanded throughout the world to maintain 25 affiliate sites throughout the United States and one site in Hong Kong, China. Upwards of 40,000 students and teachers have been served through the Breakthrough program.

The demographics of these students vary from site to site, but nationally, 95% of this program consists of people of color. 81% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 70% of students will be the first in their families to go to a four-year college. The benefits of this program for students are endless. They have the chance to sharpen their academic skills and knowledge-base on their breaks, preparing them for each upcoming school year. Also, these students are surrounded by others who may not attend the same district as them during the school year, exposing them to a variety of people. The development opportunities for students are in abundance; Breakthrough hosts weekly events to benefit the students. Some programs that sites put on include a college fair, career day, and field trips to local businesses and universities.

The above image showcases all of the 9th grade students at Breakthrough's Cincinnati site taking a college visit to Xavier University.

The demographics of teachers nationally range as well, but 60% of Breakthrough teaching fellows are people of color. As with the students, the benefits for teachers can’t be beat. Teaching fellows receive 100 hours of teaching and leadership training, including 75 hours of lead classroom experience. At Breakthrough, each teaching fellow has their own autonomous classroom. Each core subject is also led by an instructional coach who guides and mentors teachers through every step of the program. Nearly 75% of teaching fellows go on to pursue careers in education after their time with Breakthrough.


“Project Breakthrough:” Local Influence

I approach this web page with vast personal knowledge of this program because I was a teaching fellow at an affiliate site during the summer of 2016. I taught 9th grade writing at Breakthrough Cincinnati for six amazing weeks.

Students in this program come from neighborhoods all around Cincinnati, like South Avondale, Evanston, Over-the-Rhine, Madisonville, Bond Hill, and more. They attend various schools during the year, including Purcell, Walnut Hills, and other Cincinnati-area schools. Breakthrough Cincinnati is hosted at Cincinnati Country Day School as well as at the University of Cincinnati. The CCDS site houses grades 6-9, while the UC site housed an additional 6th grade during 2016 and will continue to add a new grade in the coming years until it is a complete site.

For acceptance into Breakthrough Cincinnati, students must meet at least two of the five needs-based indicators. The indicators are: “racial/ethnic minority, qualification for free/reduced-price lunch, first generation college student, single-parent household, and/or English Language Learners.” At the Cincinnati affiliate, 97% of students are of racial or ethnic minorities, 61% qualify for free or reduced lunch, 51% will be the first in their families to go to college, 60% live with one parent, and 11% are English Language Learners. 60% of students at Breakthrough Cincinnati meet three or more of these needs indicators.

All of these statistics and buzzwords must have caught your attention about the program. When laid out in this way, it is clear that this program aims to make a difference for an underserved group. However, these statistics do not give you a direct look into the daily life of the program. They don't allow you to feel Breakthrough. I conducted an interview with a former Breakthrough student and a dean of the program to gain some more personal insight into Breakthrough Cincinnati. This video can be found at the bottom of this page. However, the Breakthrough culture is something that cannot be understood simply from reading statistics or hearing testimonials. The love and strong sense of community in this program is palpable when you enter the building. To create this atmosphere requires enthusiasm and commitment from all staff members. They model excitement and positivity during all parts of the day. To truly appreciate this program, you must experience a day in the life of a Breakthrough student or teaching fellow.


A Day in the Life: Breakthrough Cincinnati

The day begins at 8 am; teaching fellows arrive at school 15-30 minutes before students to prepare their classrooms. At the first sign of a bus pulling into the parking lot, any teaching fellow that spots it screams out, “BUS!” The mad dash to the front of the school then begins. Teachers gather to greet students in proper Breakthrough fashion: with a song. This song does not end until all busses have arrived, so it could go on for upwards of 30 minutes. After the Good Morning song, students proceed inside to eat breakfast with their classmates and teachers. They can use this time to finish homework from the night before. Once breakfast is complete, the day rushes forward to academic classes.

The sign featured above is what lined the hall towards the 9th grade classes. All halls at Breakthrough are decorated with similar decorations in accordance with the theme of the summer. Cincinnati's 2016 theme was "Olympics."

Teachers take their places in their classrooms, ready to implement their lesson plan for the day. Core classes last for 50 minutes; students attend two core classes, have a brain break in the form of the All School Meeting, and attend their final two core classes. During class-time, you may find students participating in Socratic seminars, rolling through the hallway to recreate DNA replication, typing up a final draft of their personal essay, or other engaging activities. These classes are rigorous for students as well as educators. Below, you will see an image of a Chalk Talk that I conducted to lead into our second writing project. This is an example of the types of activities we do in the classroom to engage students. I chose to hold a silent discussion through this Chalk Talk. I posed the question "What are the dangers of a single story?" and students responded in writing on the board.

Between second and third periods comes a 25-minute brain break for students. This time is known as the All School Meeting, or ASM. ASM is the part of the day that asks for 150% enthusiasm from educators so that students will be excited too. This meeting is essentially a small pep rally that occurs daily at Breakthrough. Each meeting asks students a question of the day, introduces a high-level vocabulary word, and involves them in a game. There is also a student of the day crowned daily; this student exemplifies what it means to be a caring, respectful, intelligent, and awesome Breakthrough student. Cheering is endless during this period and students thrive in this space to have fun and appreciate each other’s accomplishments. It wraps up with teacher announcements and students then return to their classes to learn.

After ASM and core classes, students attend lunch and recess. Teaching fellows are required to eat lunch with the students as well as play with them at recess. Calling this a  “requirement” makes it seem like a chore, when it really is the opposite. This is a fun time for teachers to get to know students outside of their classes. While I loved all students I had the opportunity to hang out with, I found my niche within the 7th grade girl tables or jump rope groups. I listened to middle-school girl gossip, or tried to bond with students over our love for Snapchat. The connections made during this “required” time can’t be replaced with anything.

This image features 6th grade studens playing a game with a hula hoop.

After lunch and recess, students attended their academic elective course. Teaching fellows are required to teach either an elective or foreign language, so I opted for foreign language. As mentioned earlier, these elective classes were still educational for students. They learned about a variety of interesting topics that they may not get to during traditional school. After academic electives come foreign language classes. I taught French I to 6th and 7th grade students. Each of these classes, AE and FL, lasted for 35 minutes before leading into the last part of the day—mini course. Mini courses are classes that are mainly a time of fun for students. Lasting for 25 minutes, students could pick to take crafting, meditation, basketball, football, and a plethora of other courses offered by teaching fellows.

The day ended with one last gathering of the students and staff. During this time, teachers made any final announcements for the students. Finally, students and staff—led by the student of the day—recite the program’s affirmation to close out the school day.

We are Breakthrough Cincinnati. We believe in the power of young people. Through hard work, determination, and discipline, we can achieve our goals. We believe in ourselves. We are BREAKTHROUGH CINCINNATI.

After the affirmation, students exit the school to hop on their busses. However, it wouldn’t be a proper Breakthrough send-off without a song! Teachers line the front of the school, yet again, to sing the Goodbye Song. During this song, teachers have a chance to showcase their favorite dance moves as they say farewell to the students. Once all students are safely on their busses to leave for the day, teachers re-enter the school to finally wrap up the day, prepare for the next, and do it all over again tomorrow.

The embedded clip that appears at the bottom of the page is an interview that I conducted with a former Breakthrough student as well as a former Breakthrough teaching fellow/dean of the program. Watch the video for additional insight into the program, the students, and more. To get involved with Breakthrough, go to This is the national collaboraitve's web address where you can find out more about the history of the program, donating to it, participating in it, and may answer any additional questions you have.

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