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It’s January of 2012, I’m a sophomore in college, and I find myself filling out the application for a summer teaching internship program called the Breakthrough Collaborative. I had several friends who came back from the program raving with stories of adorably peculiar kids – with “eyes you can’t f— with,” as one such story went – and a reassuring enthusiasm for a future in teaching.

The program has chapters in places like Austin, New Orleans, Providence, and Birmingham.  The application was surprisingly simple considering it’s one of the “Top Ten Internships in America,” according to the Princeton Review. After spending the previous summer backpacking through Europe with my brother, I desperately needed more meaningful work experience for both my resume and father’s sanity. I was interested in being a teacher and the program sounded fun, but I wasn’t expecting such an eye-opening, fulfilling experience.

A group of students on an ‘Art Day’ field trip with Breakthrough. Students have to fill out an application entirely by themselves—not an easy task for middle schoolers. Photo by Abby Denniso.
A group of students on an ‘Art Day’ field trip with Breakthrough. Students have to fill out an application entirely by themselves—not an easy task for middle schoolers. Photo by Abby Denniso.

Breakthrough was started in San Francisco in 1978 as “Summerbridge,” and has since spread to 30 other locations, including Austin, Houston, and Ft. Worth. At the start of every summer, droves of stellar high school and college students are trained – or rather empowered – to teach by an experienced staff of directors and mentor teachers.

Each teacher is assigned a group of advisees to mentor and problem-solve with. Photo by Charlie Cross.
Each teacher is assigned a group of advisees to mentor and problem-solve with. These were mine. Photo by Charlie Cross.

These intern teachers then spend six weeks guiding low-opportunity, high-achieving students through basic subjects like math and reading as well as elective classes individually designed according to the teacher’s interests. Throughout the school year, the middle school students attend monthly enrichment programs. As the students continue into high school, the local staff act as advocates and college counselors.

All in all, it is an extraordinarily well-executed program. Students, often coming from distressed schools and homes, are exposed to a rigorous but accepting community – from personal involvement I can tell you these potential teachers get a dose of the real teaching experience.

A few months after filling out the application, I found myself in Santa Fe, contracted to teach pre-algebra and an elective on poetry. The program was held at Santa Fe Preparatory School, and the out-of-state teachers were housed across the street at a Carmelite nunnery and retreat center. The next several weeks were so exhausting, frustrating, and thrilling that it was an easy choice to return the following summer. In my two summers there, I found myself doing the meaningful type of work that had often eluded me at school and that I aspired to find after graduation.

Every year, Breakthrough Santa Fe students get to have lunch with folk artists from around the world meeting in Santa Fe for the Folk Art Market. Photo courtesy of Breakthrough Santa Fe.
Every year, Breakthrough Santa Fe students get to have lunch with folk artists from around the world meeting in Santa Fe for the Folk Art Market. Photo courtesy of Breakthrough Santa Fe.

The energy and effort I put in on each of my lessons was immediately felt the next day in my classroom. I had a tangible impact on the day-to-day quality of my student’s lives and – at least for a few weeks – their growth as individuals. This was the taste of teaching I had wanted, and it was way better than I had expected.

The value my fellow Breakthrough teachers have continued to find in their experiences has been affirmed quantitatively. Breakthrough’s 2012 annual report states that 86% of alumni became educators because of their Breakthrough experience. After graduating, many alumni continue on into teaching fellowships such as Teach For America (the San Antonio chapter launched in 2010) as well as getting directly hired into various charter schools. The efficacy of the program has also been demonstrated on the student side. The same report states that as compared to the start of the summer, “Breakthrough doubled the number of students who are at proficiency level in Algebra readiness.”

Still, these statistics don’t speak to the effects that the program has on the lives of the students and teachers. Though I attended some of the best schools in San Antonio and am about to graduate from a remarkably conscientious college, Carleton College in Northfield, MN., I have never been a part of such an accepting and intentional educational community.

After a week of training, I told my parents I thought I could do a better job of classroom management than many of my own middle-school and high-school teachers, which may or may not have proven true. Photo by Tom Ponce
After a week of training, I told my parents I thought I could do a better job of classroom management than many of my own middle-school and high-school teachers, which may or may not have proven true. Photo by Tom Ponce

It was a place for individuals to feel intrinsically valued for who they are and explore their unique talents and interests without the petty social pressures that often shape middle school identities. In addition to the warmth and attentiveness of my program’s directors, I think this is largely credited to the fact that Breakthrough is relatively self-contained. As an extracurricular and independent program, there are no national standards or bureaucratic clamps on the community, meaning it can operate towards less concrete but ultimately more valuable ends: the soft skills of patience, emotional awareness, and honesty that lead towards success in high school, college, and beyond.

During frequent daydreams of a future teaching, I had to remind myself not to lose sight of how rare the warmth and dedication of the community was. I had never experienced anything like it, and there were few schools in the country where it was likely to reappear. Yes, I wanted to be a teacher, but I could not take for granted this spirit; that was something I would have to try to provide for myself. Nevertheless, the fact that there are such devoted and intelligent individuals like those I met at Breakthrough gives me a lot of hope.

I share my experiences in this way largely to bring this wonderful organization to the attention of San Antonio. Breakthrough is by no means a miracle cure for all the students and teachers in the city, but there is a possibility to make a meaningful impact on a number of lives. We are a city that is increasingly passionate about education (PreK for SA, for example), but struggling with an underperforming public school system. Breakthrough would provide a tangible and tangle-free outlet for those interested in assisting under-served students in achieving quality educations.

Charlie Cross is a Senior at Carleton College in Northfield, MN., majoring in Religion with a specific interest in progressive spiritual thought and the intersections between science, education, and religion. He is a graduate of San Antonio Academy and Saint Mary’s Hall and a former employee of Mi Tierra. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieCross.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org