Talent lives in every Zip code

<cutline_leadin>THRIVING:</cutline_leadin> Peterson Exias looks off while waiting with students for a snack. Peterson survived 2010 Haiti quake and attended Breakthrough in 2013.
<cutline_leadin>THRIVING:</cutline_leadin> Peterson Exias looks off while waiting with students for a snack. Peterson survived 2010 Haiti quake and attended Breakthrough in 2013.

Take a minute to think about what it’s like to live in a neighborhood where you are surrounded by negative influences.

Growing up in Delray Beach, I never realized that the odds were against me. I didn’t know that the curriculum in my elementary school was two grade levels behind another elementary serving a good neighborhood a mile away. I never knew that there was an academic achievement gap that kept growing as I matriculated through middle-school. Or that only a quarter of low-income students who score above-average on standardized tests in 8th grade make it through college, fewer than more affluent students with lower test scores.

Then, in my freshman year of high school, school boundaries changed, making my drive to school 45 minutes. On that every-day journey, I began to see the differences: nice homes, paved streets, green grass in yards and clean communities. My school was welcoming; my teachers focused on teaching and not disciplining. This was a culture that I was not accustomed to, but I was eager to figure out how to adjust academically and socially to this new world.

This experience helped pave my career path. I knew I wanted to work with children from economically challenged circumstances. I was driven to study education at Bethune-Cookman University, and after a few years of classroom experience, I realized my calling was beyond those four walls. When I was introduced to Breakthrough Miami in 2007, I knew that I’d found my home.

Breakthrough Miami is an enrichment program for motivated youth from under-resourced communities that takes place for six weeks during the summer and on Saturdays during the school year. We currently serve 1,100 students in Miami-Dade, primarily students who attend public middle and high schools across the county. More than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch through the National School Lunch Program.

Our “students-teaching-students” model combines individualized enrichment, counseling and extended learning time over eight years of direct service, from fifth grade through 12th. Our keystone program is the academically rigorous Summer Institute, designed to combat summer learning loss, the leading contributor to the achievement gap between affluent students and their lower-income peers.

Our instructors are exceptional high-school and college students who we train to serve as “Teaching Fellows,” mentors and role models. With a low teacher-student ratio, we help younger students experience breakthroughs in academics, social skills and confidence, while the older students engage in community service that helps them discover their potential as educators and leaders. The independent schools that host our programs — there are Breakthrough Miami middle-school sites at Miami Country Day School, Ransom Everglades School, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart and Palmer Trinity School — are critical to our success. They share their facilities and learning resources and lend other support.

Breakthrough Miami scholars in high school attend the College Bound program, located on the the University of Miami campus. There we provide continued academic enrichment and college-and career-readiness activities, including SAT/ACT preparation, college tours and scholarship searches. The 12th-graders receive individualized support as they apply to college and complete financial aid paperwork. We guide students and their families every step of the way. At UM, they experience first-hand what it is like to be on a college campus.

Breakthrough Miami not only prepares students with the academics to enter competitive colleges, it also takes them out of that mental bubble that I lived with for so many years, the one that confined my dreams and goals as a child. I had a strong family support system, but the lack of school and community resources made my road to college tough to navigate. My goal — and Breakthrough’s — is to offer the missing link that brings families, schools and the community together in an effort to close the achievement gap: 100 percent of our seniors graduate high school on time, and 98 percent enroll in college.

No child should have to limit his or her aspirations based on a Zip code.

Jamael Stewart is senior site director for the Breakthrough program at Miami Country Day School and director of teacher training.