Breakthrough Atlanta, a nonprofit organization, is currently holding its six-week signature summer program, which is a component of its six-year, tuition-free, year-round program that provides a pathway to college for hundreds of underserved middle and high school students each year.

The nonprofit has a dual mission to increase academic opportunity for underserved students and to develop the next generation of teachers.

Aspects of the program include life-changing educational opportunities that have helped thousands of students achieve their dreams for over 25 years, innovative project-based-learning including a peer-to-peer math tutoring initiative, and a student-teaching-students model which attracts future educators.

Breakthrough Atlanta’s Summer Program

The Lovett School, which hosts Breakthrough’s summer program, launched Breakthrough Atlanta in 1996, paving the way for thousands of underserved students to realize their dreams.

That solid foundation, and Lovett’s ongoing partnership, enabled Breakthrough Atlanta to become a self-sustaining nonprofit organization that continues to expand its life-changing educational opportunities for students to succeed in college and beyond.

CEO of Breakthrough Atlanta Monique Shields said the purpose of the summer program pursues a dual mission.

“We help to place initiative-taking underserved students on a path to college enrollment and success and we work to inspire college students to become educators. Where it all starts and comes together is in our summer program,” Shields said.

Having been with Breakthrough as the CEO since 2018, Shields said because she has always worked with and served youth, and went through a fellowship experience like Breakthrough’s, she knows the “transformational power” that fellowships can have for young adults in terms of preparing them for their careers.

“I think our dual mission is vitally important right now, it always has been, but because of doubts around whether college is worth it and doubts around going into teaching as a career, I think Breakthrough’s mission is very vital now,” she said.

Rising 7th grader Tacarlee Wilson started her very first summer with Breakthrough this year and she said she “really likes the program”.

“I think the Breakthrough Atlanta Summer Program is fun and educational and it’s good for me because I get extra practice,” Wilson said. “My favorite part has been my ELA class because we’re learning about different poems and other things. I really love poems and I created one in class about PTSD.”

One thing Wilson said she has learned so far in the program is Distributive Property in math, Haikus in ELA, and how to filter water in STEM.

The program, Wilson said, is helping her prepare for seventh grade.

“The program is helping me prepare because there are a lot of things that I’m not sure what I want to do once I get into the seventh grade, so it helps me think about what the next grade will be like,” she said.

Wilson also gave advice for kids who might be interested in the program.

“When you come into the program, be yourself and if you need any help or anything, just ask somebody because they are open to anything and they don’t judge. This place is safe,” she said.

Additionally, the students are in the program with Breakthrough Atlanta for six years, according to Shields.

“They start in the summer before their seventh-grade year and in the summers, they participate in a six-week summer learning program where we focus on making sure they maintain and build their English, Language, and Arts (ELA) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM),” she said.

The program, Shields said, also introduces scholars to college students who are participating in Breakthrough Atlanta’s teaching fellowship program.

“Those college students are their teachers in the summer, not only are they teaching them in those subjects I mentioned, but they’re also serving as peer role models and helping our middle schoolers be able to see what they could be in just a few years when they enter college. It’s a neat summer program and an incredibly special experience. We’ve been doing this since 1996, so 27 years now,” she said.

Additionally, Breakthrough Atlanta recently partnered with 40 Mustard Seeds Foundation, a non-profit started several years ago by teenager Gabrielle Tobin with the mission of providing essential tools and tutoring for middle school students.

Now a rising high school senior, Tobin is leading a team of high school volunteers to implement an innovative math initiative with 7th graders attending Breakthrough’s six-week summer program. This team will be tutoring Breakthrough students while also helping them to create peer-to-peer math tutoring videos that will be posted online.

“It’s a great partnership and again, our motto as an organization was ‘students instructing students’ and through this partnership, we can engage an even younger group of students to instruct other students, who will then teach their peers. It’s just a win-win for all the young people that participate in Breakthrough,” Shields said.

The Teaching Fellowship Program

More than 50 college students from across the U.S., aspiring educators called Teaching Fellows, have been trained to teach and mentor Breakthrough scholars this summer in math, science, writing, and more.

These college students serve as relatable mentors and role models while gaining leadership and classroom experience. Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, this teaching fellowship, which is offered in partnership with AmeriCorps, is more important than ever in cultivating a new and diverse generation of teachers. 

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019-20, the most recent year with available data, colleges and universities conferred 85,057 bachelor’s degrees in education, about four percent of the more than two million total degrees issued that year.

“For our teaching fellows, it’s a tough environment because only four percent of college students right now are indicating that they’re interested in becoming teachers,” Shields said. “We are fortunate to be a part of a national movement called ‘The Breakthrough Collaborative’, where there are 24 Breakthrough affiliates across the United States. Through our national organization, we’re partnered with more than 200 colleges and universities.”

According to Shields, they pair the teaching fellows with actual teachers who mentor them throughout the summer and help to develop lessons, deliver instructions, and build all their skills in becoming teachers. The program is also incentivized with a stipend, according to Shields.

“It’s a paid fellowship and we’re a part of the AmeriCorps program and so our teaching fellows, once they complete their summer service, receive money they can use to help pay for college, room/board, fees, and to repay federal student loans,” she said.

Returning teaching fellow and recent graduate of Tuskegee University, Jaila Mason said when she first came to Breakthrough, it was a “really great experience”.

“I taught eighth-grade STEM, and I was very nervous about teaching middle school because I wanted to teach younger kids, but middle school was great,” Mason said. “I feel that Breakthrough, even before the kids come, teaches us a lot even in the two weeks of orientation, which is rigorous but it’s exciting and we do a lot of professional development about how to be a teacher and how to work with kids.”

As an Atlanta native, Mason said being able to make an impact on her own community that she loves, is especially important to her. Additionally, Mason said she returned for another semester as a teaching fellow because she not only made close friends at Breakthrough, but also wanted to continue to have influence on children in middle school.

“Middle school is a challenging time for most kids, and they need a lot of nurturing and to get it from other students who are older than them, it’s impactful.”

For advice to upcoming teaching fellows and anyone who is interested in education, Mason said “it’s okay to make mistakes.”

“When you’re in orientation or beyond, I love to research stuff, so I research several topics like how to do different things. Use a lot of outside resources to help you and put yourself first. Coming into work every day, sometimes it can get hard and if you put so much pressure on yourself and don’t take time for self-care, you’ll burn out,” she said.

Breakthrough Atlanta continuing to pursue their dual mission

Breakthrough Atlanta continues to pursue its dual mission and inspire the next generation of teachers despite debates about whether college is worth it financially due to families becoming more cautious about taking out loans.

“Even in this climate where there’s a lot of controversy and talks about whether getting a college degree is worth the financial investment, there are a lot of parents and students who still dream of going to college,” Shields said.

Breakthrough Atlanta, Shields said, is continuing to push through and increase academic opportunity for underserved students.

“We recruit students to join our six-year college preparatory program and we find there’s a lot of interest, we receive more applications for families than we can accept students into the program. That’s because what we offer is special,” she said.

Outside of the summer program, Breakthrough Atlanta provides year-round support for all six years that students are in the program. Throughout their Breakthrough journey, Shields said, students are matched up with teaching fellows, working closely with staff including college counselors who not only focuses on building their academic skills, but also helps them go into the community and across the state to visit colleges, receive tutoring, and test prep opportunities.

“Their parents are going to join us on financial aid planning, starting when their kids enter their freshman year of high school so that families can really understand how paying for college works and where the opportunities for scholarships are and how to avoid taking out loans while finding that dream school,” she said.

Breakthrough Atlanta’s Future

As of right now, Shields said, Breakthrough Atlanta is in a “great and exciting phase”.

“We’re preparing to be a fully independent nonprofit. When we started back in 1996, we were hosted as a program within the Lovett School, and it was always our plan to become an independent nonprofit, so we are taking the steps to do that,” she said. “When we complete the process, we’ll be able to expand our operations to serve more students and to engage more college students throughout the metro Atlanta area and throughout the state, so that’s where we’re going, and we’re really excited about that.”

Additionally, Shields said this year they had a few exciting partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for their teaching fellowship recruitment, which is a part of their national teaching fellowship initiative.

“It’s important because we know many public-school students in America are children of color and we want to make sure they have role models in the classroom they can relate to and see themselves becoming, so we have a great cohort of almost 50 teaching fellows many of whom are coming from HBCUs like Spelman, Clark Atlanta, Howard, Fort Valley State. So, we have many strong HBCU partnerships, and I see that continuing for our teaching fellow outreach,” she said.

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This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Atlanta Voice through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.