By Elissa Vanaver
To a student from a low-income background, a college degree is the most likely ticket – more than any character trait or specific skill – to a prosperous and meaningful life. Yet low-income students are seven times less likely to earn a four-year degree than their more affluent peers…a gap that has only grown larger over the past 30 years.
Breakthrough Miami is changing that story line in South Florida. For 25 years, Breakthrough Miami has guided motivated students from under-resourced communities through high school and into college through an academic enrichment and mentoring program that differs from most others.
For one thing, students join Breakthrough’s college-going culture in the 5th grade, participating in the tuition-free program for eight years with in-depth summer and Saturday school-year classes. The program features a students-teaching-students model, with a nationally recognized summer internship that trains top high-school and college students as tutors, mentors and role models. It’s a joyous mix that inspires leadership… and impressive results.
Over the past five years, an average 80 percent of Breakthrough Miami’s graduating seniors have enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities, compared with some 60 percent of all students nationwide. This year’s graduating class is no exception: It includes a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship winner and three national Posse Scholars.
The 2016 Breakthrough Miami high school graduates will be attending Boston College, New York University, Hamilton College, University of Pennsylvania, Loyola University, Mount Holyoke College, Duke University, Union College, Davidson College, University of Miami, Florida State University, and Miami Dade Honors College, among others.
Cachay Byrd, 17, is one of this year’s off-the-charts success stories.
A shy girl who lived in one of Miami’s inner-city neighborhoods, Cachay will graduate this year from a top independent high school she once thought out of reach. With Breakthrough as her advocate, she won a scholarship to attend in the sixth grade, and persevered through tough moments of academic rigor and culture shock. She now reaps the reward of her hard work with a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship and will attend the University of Miami as a Hammond Scholar.
Breakthrough helped Cachay get an internship in a hospital maternity ward, fueling her ambition to become a neonatal surgeon. At the program’s commencement, she gave the keynote address, crediting the program with changing her life.
“Breakthrough has opened a world of opportunities that I may have not otherwise experienced if it wasn’t for the knowledge and nurturing environment it promoted, stirring up the desire to succeed within me,” Cachay said. “Breakthrough has been the beacon of hope at the end of the sometimes dark and troublesome tunnel called life.”
Through the dedication of Cachay’s mother, the whole family has been set on an upward trajectory. Cachay’s sisters also are studying at the same high-performing school.
It’s students like Cachay and their families who make the dedicated staffers at Breakthrough Miami beam with pride. Though the odds may be stacked against them, our Scholars count on Breakthrough Miami’s talented educators to provide the tools and long-term relationships that empower future leaders, giving them the confidence they need to, well, “break through” the barriers.
Our middle-school programs prepare students to enter, thrive in and graduate from top college-prep high schools so they are ready to succeed in four-year colleges when they graduate. Our College Bound program for high school students adds advanced academic support, career exploration, college entrance test prep, guidance on college selection and financial aid and experiential learning that develops life skills.
Breakthrough Miami also helps families overcome the challenges they face — such as language, culture and lack of previous experience with college — in the effort to help their children succeed. The Breakthrough “community” –students, families and mentors — helps mitigate negative behaviors in low-income neighborhoods and under-resourced schools. Community plays a large role in the success of nonprofits and can take on many shapes. Nonprofits who look to the communities they serve to support their mission and goals can greatly impact their clients as well as the organization itself.
This year, Breakthrough will add a sixth well-resourced and high-performing independent school site to five others — including the University of Miami – to host their Saturday and summer enrichment programs. Together these schools are generously donating facilities and services to Breakthrough’s 1,200 students, the vast majority of whom attend regular classes at Miami’s public schools. The goal is to expand further, both in Miami and elsewhere in Florida, in the future.
As summer approaches, Breakthrough Miami prepares for their busiest season yet. But through generous support and community, Breakthrough Miami has continuously been able to change lives and create leaders like Cachay and countless others. Breakthrough proves community involvement and participation is a powerful resolve in reshaping the narrative for youth.
Breakthrough Miami is a nonprofit that serves under-resourced students in Miami-Dade county. Elissa Vanaver is CEO of Breakthrough Miami.