Breakthrough Miami, part of a national eight-year program for youth from under-served communities, has transformed the lives of its students — making college more accessible and helping more young people graduate.
The program is also transformative for its instructors, inspiring more college students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue careers in education.
“This country is definitely in a place where we need great, dedicated personnel to enter the classroom,” said Lauren Rudolph, managing director of Breakthrough Miami. We need people who look like our students and believe in our students that are going to not only enter the classroom for a year or two, but stay and make a long-term impact.”
Breakthrough Collaborative, the name for the national program, offers paid internships to high school seniors and college students at sites across the country, including six in the Miami area. The students are called Teaching Fellows and teach students from fifth to 12th grades a variety of subjects and elective courses for six weeks over the summer.
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About one-fourth of the Teaching Fellows were Breakthrough scholars themselves, such as Zakiya Greene, a junior at the University of West Florida, studying English with a minor in education.
“I have about two teachers that I can remember that impacted my life in normal school, but I can remember every teacher I had in Breakthrough,” she said. “I remember how much Breakthrough just touched me. It made me feel like I could do anything.”
After teaching at the Breakthrough Palmer Trinity site for the past two summers, Greene confirmed what she said she has known since second grade — that she wants to be a teacher.
“In college, you don’t really have that many chances to get out and dive into what you want to do, especially in education or English majors. And here you are, literally touching and changing the lives of these kids. You can see the effect of what you’re doing,” she said.
Greene plans to apply to Teach for America, a program for recent college graduates to spend two years teaching under-resourced and rural public schools.
According to Rudolph, the reason the program has the ability to transform the lives of its instructors is because of the way it is structured. The teaching fellows arrive to the site a week before the students and learn how to make lesson plans and interact with one another. They also stay a week after and learn from professionals in the field and reflect on their experience.
“Over the six weeks that the [teaching fellows] have with their students, they really get to see the power that they hold when they’re in front of the classroom and see students make gains over the course of the summer, and they know that they’re a part of that success,” Rudolph said.
To Kelly Valdivia, a junior at Wake Forest University, the program helped her see the direct impact she can have on her students as an educator. Valdivia worked at the all-female Carrollton site and enjoyed teaching her students about female empowerment, along with her social studies class.
“I loved being able to be in the classroom with the students and actually being in charge of my own classroom,” she said. “It gave me a sense of responsibility and ability.”
Like Greene, she plans on applying to Teach for America and would ultimately like to be an elementary school teacher. She wants to teach at a Title I school, a school with a high percentage of students from low-income backgrounds.
Other Breakthrough Teaching Fellows, such as Isaiah Martin and Tierra Fulwood, will jump right into a career in education after graduation.
Martin, who graduated this year from Bethune Cookman University with a major in exceptional student education, will teach seventh-grade math at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand.
For the past two summers, Martin has taught eighth-grade math at the Ransom Everglades Breakthrough site. Originally from Brooklyn, Martin says that Breakthrough has helped him make connections across the country. One connection even helped him get an internship at Common School in New York.
“It wasn’t just me being at a site all summer,” he said. “It put me in a good space with good staff, and I was prepared to succeed. It really gave me the validation that this is what I want to do, and I can turn those six weeks into a career now.”
Fulwood spent three consecutive summers teaching math at Ransom Everglades. She will graduate from Georgia State University with a degree in criminal justice and pre-law next May. She was also accepted to Teach for America and will teach for two to three years.
To Fulwood, Breakthrough was an opportunity to see the impact she can have on individual students, even those who weren’t in her classes.
“I had one student, who wasn’t even in my class, tell me, ‘You know Ms. Tierra you made me believe in myself. You made me believe in the things that I thought I couldn’t do and now I know because of you, I can do anything I set my mind to.’ You’re that person for that student that they haven’t had all their lives,” she said.
After working with Teach for America, Fulwood plans on going to law school to become a district attorney. She said that her experience at Breakthrough has made her view the law in a different way and that she will apply that perspective to her career.
“I think it’s a great program for anyone, even for people who aren’t interested in education,” she said. “It broadens your horizons and teaches you so much about yourself, how to be more responsible, more careful, more appreciative.”