College Access Starts Early: How Breakthrough San Francisco is Leading the Way

Two years ago, during EP’s 10th anniversary celebration, a brave high school freshman named Tomicia stood at a podium in front of hundreds of people and talked about dissecting a cow’s eye.

She also talked about learning debate skills, going on an outdoor education trip, and meeting inspiring mentors. The educational experiences she’d had—including attending a top, college-preparatory high school—were because of Breakthrough San Francisco and its executive director, Andy Shin.

“Even if you know it already, I want to remind you that the work you’re doing in education is really important,” Tomicia said that night. “It’s important to me personally, and I know that it’s important to millions of other kids like me across the country.  Thank you for working hard for us so that we can realize our dreams!”

When Tomicia started the Breakthrough program in fourth grade, like all of Breakthrough’s students, going to college wasn’t a certainty. But Andy Shin (a 2008 EP Alumnus), was determined to see her—and hundreds of other students like her—successfully make it to college.

“We work directly with kids who are motivated and want to learn and attend college, but who are historically underrepresented in colleges, and almost all will be first in their families to go to college if we do our jobs well,” Andy says. “The path isn’t a sure thing for them, and we really try to do everything possible to help make that path more certain.”

The Breakthrough program provides students with academic enrichment in math, science, literature, and writing to build their academic skills, and also teaches them study skills, public speaking, and presentation skills. They support their students to apply to academically rigorous middle and high schools to help prepare them for college and make higher education more accessible.

Historically, the Breakthrough program was a two-year program for fifth and sixth graders, and Breakthrough San Francisco is in the process of expanding to support students from fifth through 12th grade to increase their impact on college matriculation.

“When we operated our two-year program, some kids made it to college, and a lot didn’t,” Andy says. “We completed a strategic planning process and ultimately decided to ensure Breakthrough kids have support all the way through from fifth grade to twelfth. I’m a big fan of long-term support for kids. Nonprofits have a responsibility to take ownership of kids’ outcomes in the long run. It’s great if we can boost their skills over a summer, but what changes life trajectories is long-term support.”

As Andy points out, the road to college admission starts years before high school students submit their applications. Breakthrough’s goal is to provide the support students need from the beginning.

Under his leadership for the past seven years, Breakthrough San Francisco has grown from serving 70 students in two grade levels to 200 students in six grade levels. He attributes the organization’s growth to a committed team, including a senior program leader, Jenee Palmer, who’s been at the program for six years.

“There’s a need, especially for nonprofits where there can be a lot of turnover, for sticking around to do the job well and to gain the different skills you should have to really do it properly. I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for that, for really understanding our students, teachers, curriculum, and supporters. It’s important for any leader to stick around and handle the work,” Andy says.

Andy and his team are working to instill that same commitment in their students and in the teachers they train.

In addition to supporting middle and high school students, Breakthrough operates a summer teacher residency—the same one that Andy himself participated in as an undergraduate in Providence, Rhode Island—for college students who are thinking about an education career.

“Through an eight-week commitment, our teaching fellows get a realistic, hands-on sense of what it’s like to be a teacher,” he says. “They teach two sections of an academic class each day, and they have the professional responsibilities of being a teacher, including advising students, parent/teacher conferences, and homework support.”

Breakthrough’s goal is to provide their teaching fellows with excellent training and support to grow.

“We give our teachers training to be as successful as possible, knowing that no one will be a master teacher on day one,” Andy says. “Our culture is one of feedback, and we have professional educators giving our teachers feedback daily.”

As Andy notes, support for teachers is something that the teaching profession needs a lot more of—and it could help with the teacher shortage that many states and regions are facing.

“I’m a fan of high-quality support and training for teachers, and of programs with a well thought-out model and coherent philosophy of how teachers are being trained, ongoing support, and clear next steps,” Andy says. “When I was a teacher, I was just thrown in there, and that’s not a recipe for long-term success. We need people who are interested in staying in the profession long-term, and we still have a lot of work to do around changing the mindset about who becomes a teacher, and how meaningful and long-term that work is.”

Andy is candid in talking about the need to be committed to important work on behalf of students, to taking a hard look at what’s working and what’s not—and making changes accordingly.

“Not every nonprofit needs to make a ten-year commitment to kids, but organizations do need to take full responsibility for the alignment between their mission and outcome data,” Andy says. “For us, we were talking a lot about college access, and it was right there in our mission, but the numbers weren’t there to back it up. Now, we’re clear on our mission and delivering on it.”

Andy is looking forward to seeing Tomicia and her Breakthrough classmates head off to college in fall 2017, and to supporting hundreds of Breakthrough students who will follow in her footsteps in 2018 and beyond.

By Kendra Racouillat