Laura Habian, teaching fellow and a junior at Vanderbilt University, teaches eighth grade writing at Breakthrough New York. Photo: Christina Cardona
Mariamu Conteh, 13, is an eighth-grade student at P.S. 123 in Harlem. When she was in sixth grade, the dean of her school encouraged her to apply to a high school prep program. One day during lunch, he told Conteh that he had found a program for her: Breakthrough New York. She applied and got in.
Now she feels confident in her future because of the options she has, which she says is because of this program. When Conteh goes to college, she wants to study human anatomy and science, with the hope of becoming a neurosurgeon.
Breakthrough New York is a nonprofit organization that provides educational support to kids from low-income backgrounds from middle school through college and into their careers. Students from all over New York City apply when they’re in sixth grade and commit to the program for 10 years.
“We aim to provide opportunities to really talented and motivated students from low-income families through access to educational opportunities so that they can achieve their goals,” said Beth Onofry, executive director of Breakthrough New York. “Our goal is to break the cycle of poverty and have an impact on the communities our students and teaching fellows come from.”
Breakthrough New York was founded 19 years ago at The Town School, located on 76th Street on the Upper East Side. That is now one of three sites for the program today. Breakthrough started off as a program called Summerbridge, which supported a small group of students from low-income families to get into good high schools.
In 2007, the organization expanded into a six-year commitment, aiming to help students from middle school to the start of college. Then in 2015 Breakthrough New York expanded to a 10-year commitment, to help the students through college.
Students admitted to the program begin the summer after sixth grade. During their first two summers, the students participate in a five-week summer academic program. They take math, science, writing and literature as well as electives such as basketball, choir, soccer and drama. The classes are taught by the program’s teaching fellows, college students from top universities across the country.
Breakthrough New York uses a students-teaching-students model. The teaching fellows are selected based on academic accomplishment and an ability to learn teaching techniques taught during the interview process. Each fellow teaches one academic class and one elective. Ninety percent of the program’s past summer instructors have pursued careers in education.
“If it wasn’t for Breakthrough I wouldn’t have applied to a college with an education major, so it definitely directed my path in that sense. Now that I’m in school I think I definitely want to be a teacher after college,” said Laura Habian, a teaching fellow and junior at Vanderbilt University.
Habian teaches eighth grade writing, where the students are currently working on high school application essays. Ella Scholz, another teaching fellow, is a junior at Brown University and teaches ninth grade geometry. She said her students are the most dedicated and motivated kids she’s met in her life.
“It’s really fun, I love math and the kids are just so brilliant,” Scholz said. “Sometimes I think I don’t explain things well, and they get it. They’re amazing.”
In middle school students also receive after-school tutoring and high school placement guidance.
“I wanted to join because at first I was unsure about what high school I wanted to go to,” said Phillip Raymond, 13, an eighth-grade student and Breakthrough New York participant. “Breakthrough has a specific course that helped me choose what high schools are good for me. And I learned more about what high schools I like, and it opened my eyes and got me to question what I want to be.”
Once they start high school, students receive tutoring, mentorship, SAT prep, internship placement and college admissions guidance. A full 100 percent of Breakthrough New York’s students have gone on to four-year colleges. And once in college, Breakthrough New York participants get counseling, financial advice and workshops when they return to New York City during school.
“Breakthrough is life-changing for young sixth graders because you get to open your doors and get to socialize with people that have the same mentality as you for the future, so I’d recommend it to incoming sixth graders,” Conteh said.
This past year, the organization selected 86 new students from more than 300 applicants. Students must be U.S. citizens or green card holders, their grades need to be 80 percent or higher and they must score at least three out of five on the fifth grade New York State ELA and math tests.
“We’ve grown a lot. Our population has grown. We’re excited to reach out to more bright, motivated students around the city,” Onofry said. “Our Manhattan site is most popular. My vision for the program is really to increase that support, to increase spreading the word around the city and around the borough for students about this amazing opportunity and to continue to build our community and strengthen it for the future.”