When Shanava Saintolien first heard about Breakthrough Miami in her fifth-grade class, she jumped at the chance and filled out the application on her own, then told her parents that she was going.
The only girl in a home with four brothers, Shanava, now 17, and a student at the School for Advanced Studies at Miami Dade College’s North campus, felt her home was noisy and not an optimal space to do homework.
“It was my decision,” she said. “I didn’t like to be at home that much and learning has always been fun for me, so I just wanted to do something educational over the summer.”
She is not alone. Breakthrough Miami works with about 1,000 under-resourced, middle and high school students by providing academic enrichment programs during the summer and throughout the school year. The program operates at five campuses: Miami Country Day, Ransom Everglades School, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart (an all-girls’ program), Palmer Trinity School and the University of Miami (for college-bound students).
For Shanava, who is of Haitian descent, Breakthrough Miami reinforced her interest in learning, and taught her that, despite her concerns of not being able to afford college, it was possible.
“Breakthrough started to show us that there are scholarships available; if you get good grades you will have better opportunities,” she said. “It made me aware that if I focus more, if I get better grades, then it’s more likely for me to get those scholarships to get to a good university.”
This summer, Shanava is teaching science to rising fifth-graders, the first time she’s actually teaching. She’s part of Breakthrough’s push to hire teaching fellows from urban schools to serve as role models and recruit others like them to the program.
“You’re taking these students from underserved communities and you’re giving them a professional internship surrounded by individuals that are extremely high-achieving, highly motivated and acculturating in them academic success [and] academic achievement,’’ said Webber Charles, Breakthrough’s associate site director at the Ransom Everglades site.
On the other side of Shanava’s classroom is Bobby Bastien, also making his debut as a teaching fellow. Bastien, 18, is a rising senior at North Miami Senior High and teaching language arts to incoming fifth-graders.
“Mr. Bobby,’’ draws a plot diagram on the board while Bruno Mars’ song Treasure plays in the background. Some children sing along quietly as they copy the diagram into their notebooks.
“Give me a thumbs-up when you’re done copying,” he said.
The thumbs start rising, and “Mr. Bobby’’ asks his students to tell him what the rising action of a story is. A quick hand eagerly beats the others.
“It’s when the character faces his main problem,” said Jesse Garcia, a 10-year-old from Riverside Elementary.
“Right,” said Bastien, as he starts moving along the rest of the graph. When he makes it to the next part of the graph, again Jesse’s hand spurts in the air.
“Anyone else? Besides Jesse?” Bastien asked. The students laughed.
Jesse, who wants to be a soccer player when he grows up, said he likes Mr. Bobby because he plays music while teaching and sometimes dances. He said he feels more confident to answer questions in Breakthrough because he’s not afraid of getting the answer wrong.
“In school I never wanted to answer questions, but now in Breakthrough, I answer lots of questions,” he said. “In school I would just do the work and not participate.”
Bastien, also of Haitian descent, believes the reason students feel more comfortable at Breakthrough is that they can relate more to the teachers. Like Shanava, he started Breakthrough as a fifth-grader. He decided to become a teaching fellow as soon as he turned 17, the minimum age required to apply.
“I met a couple teachers who helped change my life and my viewpoint on life,” he said. “I decided to come back because they had such an impact on me that I wanted to come back and be the guy that was the role model to another kid and be the guy who helped one kid that was astray and helped him succeed.’’
The program also helped change his mind about college, where he plans to study sports management while trying to make it as a professional basketball player.
“No one in my family has ever gone to college,” he said. “If no one in my family went to college and they’re all right, I should be all right, too, that was my mentality before.”
Breakthrough isn’t just hiring teaching fellows who have gone through the program. They’re also hiring promising inner-city high school students, like Chelsea Constancia and Cristian Lanza. Both are rising seniors at Miami Central High in northwest Miami-Dade and are teaching at the Ransom campus in Coconut Grove.
Chelsea, 17, is in her first year as a fellow, teaching social studies and coaching soccer. She says coming from Miami Central makes her click with her students.
“I was born and raised in a low-income family; my neighborhood wasn’t always the best, my schools weren’t always the best, so I can definitely relate to where they come from and some of their situations,” she said.
Chelsea, who wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, is of Guatemalan descent. She remembers having to look after her two younger siblings and help them with their homework when her parents worked at their cleaning and construction jobs.
She said she doesn’t mind making sacrifices, like giving up her social life, to get ahead.
“If I go out of state and I become an orthopedic surgeon, I set the standard very high for them, so hopefully they are encouraged to break my standards and set the highest standards for the next child,” she said.
Cristian agrees, saying how the program breaks down low expectations, a culture he sometimes saw at Miami Central.
“Some people just expect you to graduate high school, after that, they don’t even expect anything higher,” he said.
Cristian is in his first year teaching math and coaching soccer with Chelsea. He said his time in Breakthrough has been life-changing.
“I never thought in six weeks I could get so attached to a group of kids I never had met before,” he said. “Some kids that hated math their whole life are now eager to go to my class since I started teaching them.”
Cristian wants to be a physical therapist and is currently being tutored to improve his SAT scores by an older teaching fellow who is a student at Barnard College in New York. Many of the Breakthrough teachers are college students from across the country.
“I thought about college, but not like I’m gonna go to out of state. Now, there are teachers coming from all around the U.S., they tell me about their schools and I started realizing there’s more opportunities out of Florida,” he said.
Cristian hopes to continue seeing his students during the academic year. During the school year, the program runs on Saturdays.
“This is a program that helps motivate [children] to do something more in life, not just to graduate high school, be someone great, not just be good, be great at what you do.”