Program steers low-income students toward college

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Contra Costa Times
By: Sharon Noguchi
August 2, 2011

It's an example of peer pressure at its best.

A small but ambitious program uses fellow classmates and older students as teachers to steer low-income students toward college.

Through its rigorous summer program for promising students, Breakthrough Silicon Valley transforms students and turns fleeting dreams into tangible goals through beefed-up academics.

At the same time, Breakthrough is training a diverse cadre of bright high school and college students as teachers. Barely older than their students, each instructor is teacher, mentor, friend and counselor rolled into one.

And, even after a full day in school and up to three hours of homework, the kids seem to love it.

"The teacher understands us. A few years ago, they were exactly where we were," said ninth-grader Miguel Vargas. "They had the same problems, and they can teach us how to overcome them."

Breakthrough recruits motivated, high-achieving sixth-graders from 12 San Jose middle schools. The students and their families commit to Breakthrough for six years, including three summer sessions. This year, 47 students were accepted. In June, the students become immersed in a new world, a mix of five academic courses and one elective, all set on a bucolic Los Gatos campus.

The private Hillbrook School donates its campus and underwrites transportation for Breakthrough. Learning in that setting is an eye-opener, said Tania Wilcox, Breakthrough executive director. "Knowing there's a world of wealth out there," she said, "students get exposed to that and say, 'Hey, I deserve this, too.' "

Right away the homework load comes as a shocker. Yet, students said, school makes them want to learn.

"Classes are very homey," said Kiara Cardona, who is transferring from Hoover Middle School in San Jose to Hillbrook next year.

"It is a school, but it's not like school," said Valentina Bautista, 17, a rising senior at Gunderson High in San Jose, who chokes up when she talks about how Breakthrough changed her life.

Though the setting is relaxing, it's also the expectations and the attention -- the maximum class size is 11, and no one gets left behind -- that inspire. Then there are the enticing electives, such as Monsters and Heroes Through Time, Creepy Crawlers, Saucy Shakespeare and Ultimate Frisbee.

Students also learn public speaking. "This helps you get out of your shy spot," said Miguel, who was master of ceremonies for an all-school assembly last week.

Begun nine years ago with funding from Applied Materials, Breakthrough Silicon Valley is one of 33 Breakthrough programs nationwide that launches middle school students on a trajectory toward college-prep high schools. The summer preparation and enrichment is critical for low-income students -- who pay no tuition -- Wilcox said. Studies reinforce what middle-class families know: It's important to fortify learning and broaden minds during summers.

Among many programs working with low-income, minority youths to bridge the achievement gap, said Breakthrough board member Susan Hanson, an education researcher: "This is the Cadillac version."

The transformation has an effect outside the classroom, as well.

"Once my parents saw me doing three hours of homework a night, they saw the potential in me," said third-year Breakthrough student Kevin Breschini, who will attend Bellarmine College Preparatory in the fall.

He is among the 24 percent of students completing three years of Breakthrough summer camp who then transfer to private or charter schools, Wilcox said. About two or three students drop out every year, Wilcox said.

Two years ago, Breakthrough expanded to high school when "we found that about all our older kids were going to college, but half of them were in community college." That wasn't good enough for Breakthrough, which aims to get students through four-year colleges.

Now, Breakthrough offers its high school students after-school tutoring, financial-literacy workshops, college entrance exam preparation and college visits. It tracks students' grades and intervenes when necessary.

"It's similar to what affluent families would do," Hanson said. "If you see a C on a report card, you are alarmed." While most public school counselors are too overwhelmed to help students navigate the complicated college-preparation marathon, Breakthrough fills the void.

Valentina estimates she has met with her Breakthrough counselor more than 100 times in three years; she has met with her counselor at Gunderson maybe three times.

Some might wonder how effectively teachers who are students themselves can run a classroom. Breakthrough believes that their teachers remember clearly what works and what doesn't; it also selects top students for its teacher corps, starts with 80 hours of training and offers mentoring from five experienced teachers.

"I try to teach the way I'd like all my teachers to teach," said Donna Chung, a Brown University senior in her second summer as a Breakthrough math teacher.

The small classes are critical. "We get to pay attention to each student," said math teacher Luis Torres, a senior at Lincoln High in San Jose. In public school classrooms, he said, "there are about five students in the front raising their hands and asking questions. There are a few in the middle talking with their peers. And in the back, there are 10 to 20 kids not paying attention."

At Breakthrough, everyone is a front-row student.

But what happens when students return to their 35-student classrooms at their public schools?

Breakthrough has helped them learn how to learn, said math teacher Nausheen Mahmood, a Stanford University sophomore.

"They focus on who we are and what we need," said Valentina, who will apply to several small liberal-arts colleges, hopes to work in public relations and eventually become an executive director with Breakthrough. "It's all about us, but at the same time, it's all about everybody."

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