TOPICS > Education

Summer school motivates college dreams for middle school students

September 1, 2014 at 8:27 PM EST
In St. Paul, Minnesota, students are dancing their way to class -- literally -- in the middle of the summer. This is Breakthrough, an innovative summer program with the sole focus of inspiring low-income, under-resourced middle school students to go to college, and showing them how to get there. Special correspondent Terry Rubin has the story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our next report looks at an innovative summer school program here in the U.S. designed to motivate its students to apply for college.

Special correspondent Terry Rubin reports from Minnesota.

TERRY RUBIN: It’s the middle of the summer in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and these sixth, seventh and eighth graders are hopscotching their way into school. These students are not taking summer school because they have to, but because they want to.

Instead of going to a classroom, they go for a rousing game of dodgeball.

MAN: The final point.

TERRY RUBIN: This unusual start to a day is actually quite normal for a program called Breakthrough, an eight-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week summer enrichment program for middle schoolers and soon-to-be high school freshmen. They take courses in math, English, science, and social studies, and say they have fun doing it, especially when music cues them to dance from class to class.

Breakthrough is a unique summer program, with the sole focus of showing low-income, under-resourced middle school students how to get to college.

Mikisha Nation is the executive director of Twin Cities Breakthrough.

MIKISHA NATION, Executive Director, Breakthrough Twin Cities: Breakthrough’s mission, at its core, it’s about two really important issues. The first is preparing under-resourced students for college success, and the second is engaging and inspiring the next generation of educators. And we do this through a unique model of students teaching students.

TERRY RUBIN: Nation says it is this idea of students teaching students that has led to Breakthrough’s success in getting these middle schoolers to believe they can go to college.

Breakthrough executive directors around the country say there are two elements that make this program unique: It implants the idea of attending college while students are young and impressionable, and it shows them what they have to do for the next six years to get there.

Jeff Ochs has been connected to Twin Cities Breakthrough for more than 10 years. He says they make sure students are on the right track from the beginning.

JEFF OCHS, Former Executive Director, Breakthrough Twin Cities: The first thing that we do is, we really work to make sure that these students are in honors courses during their school year. What we want to make sure is that inside those schools, they’re in the courses that are preparing them the best for college and so, you know, that not only are they getting academic support, but they’re also in a culture, a college-going culture with their peer group that’s really going to support them on that journey.

TERRY RUBIN: The middle schoolers say the learning experience itself is different.

Dynasty Anderson is in her first year at Breakthrough.

DYNASTY ANDERSON, Breakthrough Student: They, like, teach in a different way. They just don’t, like, stand in front of the class and say, oh, you’re going to do this, this and this, like regular school. They give you options, and they ask do we have any questions in between almost everything they say, instead of, like school, we have to wait until the end, and we might forget our questions.

TERRY RUBIN: Another difference, according to soon-to-be high schooler Becky Stark, homework is called Booyah.

BECKY STARK, Student: A lot of people associate homework with boring, not fun, and just something you have to do that just takes up your time. But like here, it’s — every time someone says Booyah, you have to respond with Booyah. Like, you have to repeat it. And it just keeps the energy up, and it makes everyone feel welcome and together.

TERRY RUBIN: In the Twin Cities, 100 percent of the students who attended the middle school summer program in addition to the weekend enrichment sessions throughout high school are attending college this fall.

Thirteen-year-old Luciano Munoz is back for a second year and says Breakthrough has made him a better student.

LUCIANO MUNOZ, Breakthrough Student: When I was in sixth grade, well, they didn’t really give us grades, but I’m pretty sure I might have had C’s. And when I came back from Breakthrough, I started getting A’s and B’s during seventh grade.

TERRY RUBIN: Site director Ben Bauer cited studies that show, without the support or guidance of programs like Breakthrough, 85 percent of students like these are not likely to attend college.

BEN BAUER, Site Director, Breakthrough Twin Cities: Even those kids who are high-achieving and highly motivated in elementary, going into middle school can drop off.

And a lot of that is because it’s not the norm, it’s not cool to like learning. And kids want to fit in, at that age especially, and liking learning and being smart isn’t fitting in. We want to create a place where they are fitting in. And, especially in the middle school years, that’s really powerful.

TERRY RUBIN: Neesha Moore says her peers were surprised she was already talking about college in middle school.

NEESHA MOORE, Breakthrough Student: My friends, it was a surprise to them. They were like, why are you looking at colleges and stuff?  We’re in seventh grade. And I was like, it doesn’t really matter. It’s never too early to start, because we learned that here at Breakthrough.

TERRY RUBIN: Students must apply to get into this program. This summer, Breakthrough served more than 4,000 students nationwide, although, at various sites, they turned away anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of applicants, based on a lack of funding or lack of facilities.

Twin Cities Breakthrough became one of the few cities to have multiple facilities, as they have partnered with Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools, opening up two more sites in low-income neighborhoods. Still, the program could only accept 150 out of more than 400 applicants.

Nationally, Breakthrough leaders say it costs on average more than $2,500 per student to run the six-week program. Their funding comes from corporate sponsors, grants, and individual donations. To create this distinct culture, Breakthrough directors award about 800 hands-on teaching fellowships at 27 sites across the country each year.

They say the fellows are the key to the program’s success. College junior Denise Quintanilla was a Breakthrough student, and is now teaching science. Hanan Farah is entering her senior year of high school and is teaching social studies this summer. Both these teaching fellows say the system works because they relate to the kids.

DENISE QUINTANILLA, Breakthrough Teacher: It’s just understanding how they work and how you work, because you’re not too far apart in age, which is really nice. And you’re also able to build a relationship that is based on friendship as well, and you’re a role model to them. So you have a very beautiful connection with them because you’re their teacher, but their friend and role model as well.

HANAN FARAH, Breakthrough Teacher: They know that you’re going through the same thing, that you have homework, and that you have classes you need to get to in the morning. We wake up at the same time during the school year. That’s why students can really relate to us.

TERRY RUBIN: Daniel Bernal used to be a teaching fellow, and now is a full-time teacher in Saint Paul public schools. He trains the current crop of young educators.

DANIEL BERNAL, Former Breakthrough Teacher: One of the reasons that our teachers are so successful at Breakthrough being teachers is because of the support that they get from the staff and from the coaches like me, who work with them to make sure every lesson is high-quality, every lesson is going to work for their students, is going to be engaging.

It’s interesting because we get a lot of college students who think, oh, I would love to do something fun in the summer, something academic, something with kids, and they have never thought of teaching before. They find out about Breakthrough, and it’s just infectious, in a good way.

TERRY RUBIN: More than 70 percent of the Twin Cities Breakthrough teaching fellows ultimately choose a career in education. Ben Bauer is one of those. He has spent five years with Breakthrough.

BEN BAUER: When I got this opportunity, one thing that really stuck out was just being with kids, and actually getting that hands-on experience, and not even just kids in general, but the specific Breakthrough students. I fell in love with the students we have here, and it made me want to go teach in a low-income school, and that’s something that wasn’t even on my radar before.

TERRY RUBIN: While the executive director is looking for ways to expand and reach more kids, teaching fellows say they end each day the same way they started, showing these middle schoolers the path to college, with a little dancing.