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Inspiring Miami-Dade middle schoolers is young teachers’ goal

Resource type: News

Original Source and Video

Breakthrough Collaborative is an Atlantic grantee.


In her black shirt, jeans and sneakers on campus, one might mistake 20-year-old Yamile Rodriguez for a student. No, she’s a teacher.

Rodriguez, a college junior from Hialeah, gave up her summer vacation to inspire children by working at Breakthrough Miami, a program in which students teach other students.

Breakthrough Miami, formerly known as Summerbridge, is a tuition-free program that caters to motivated middle school students from low-income communities with the hope that they will thrive in top preparatory high schools and go on to graduate from college.

The program also seeks to inspire high school and college students to try out the “teacher experience” during the summer. Miami-Dade Public Schools instructors mentor them to create the curriculum, prepare lesson plans and even grade papers.

Some teachers are Breakthrough alumni. Rodriguez is one of them.

“I wanted to come back,” said Rodriguez, who attends Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “I just wanted to inspire at least one child. That’s my goal for the summer. My English teacher inspired me; now I’m an English teacher here.”

Breakthrough Miami started in 1992 at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove with 50 middle school students and was modeled after Breakthrough Collaborative, a nationally recognized organization with 34 sites in the United States and one in Hong Kong.

The program now runs in two additional sites and teaches 350 kids. Last summer, Doctors Charter School in Miami Shores and Carrollton School in Miami welcomed the summer institute into their premises, said John Flickinger, founder of the local program.

The program gets support from local corporations, private foundations and individuals. In 2007, the organization received a $3.25 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

Breakthrough is considered a Top 10 teaching internship by the Princeton Review. And although the teachers are not required to pursue a career in education, 72 percent of them do, according to a Stanford University study.

“We look for young people who enjoy working with kids and who are motivated and enthusiastic,” said Alicia Rodriguez, executive director.

The program accepts college and high school teachers each year for the eight-week summer institute. This year, 66 students from the United States and from countries such as the Bahamas, Egypt, Taiwan and Venezuela were admitted.

Teachers prepare middle school students from Miami-Dade public schools to excel academically and encourage them to perform and apply to the best high schools — all while having fun. That’s why more than 80 percent of the kids enter four-year colleges, according to the American Research Institute, a provider of education and training services in Morrisville, N.C.

Classes are based on experimental learning and creative hands-on projects. The teachers aren’t much older, a fact the kids seem to enjoy.

When Alonte Johnson, 20, who graduated from Breakthrough in Atlanta, taught one of his students about the components of the cell by relating it to a football game — his student boosted his science score.

And when Jeremy Smith, 17, a high school senior from the School of Advanced Studies in Homestead, taught a science experiment by putting an electric current through a pickle, his class was perplexed.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Smith asked, as students stared at the glowing pickle.

“Oh, that’s so awesome,” said one of the kids laughing. “It’s gonna blow up!”

While there is a set number of academic and elective courses that range from zumba dance to Japanese lessons, the weekly calendar also includes activities such as “word of the day,” where students are exposed to SAT words; and “celebrity day,” when students are photographed by paparazzi teachers who ask them for their autographs to boost their confidence.

“Every day when buses arrive to Ransom, we are cheering and dancing to students, welcoming them to campus,” said University of Colorado student Janessa Jordan, 21, a Breakthrough teacher, wearing a Ninja Turtle costume for celebrity day.

“It’s to wake them up, and to let them know that they are loved and their teachers are 100 percent here for them.”

Dressed as Madonna, Alexandra Breaux of Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center, said her favorite activity is the “all-school meeting,” when all students gather to learn about colleges, sing and even practice wu-tang, a popular dance with choreography.

“We dance and do skits. It is so much fun!” said Alexandra, 10. “I think it’s because [the teachers] are younger.”

South Florida alumni say the program nurtured and encouraged them to grow and break the poverty trap through creativity and education.

“Breakthrough Miami ignited the fire of success,” said Terron Ferguson, 23. Born in Liberty City, Ferguson recently graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta and has been accepted to Yale Law School.

“[The program] instilled in me the appetite for knowledge that I did not have,” Ferguson said. “It exposed me to cultures and lifestyles beyond my own.”

Breakthrough tracks middle school students’ progress throughout their high school and college careers. Lamar Shambley, 21, found a job with a bank investment corporation through the organization, he said.

“This is more than just a school program,” said Shambley, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who has taught at Doctors Charter for two years. “It’s a life program.”

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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