On a weekend in September, a group of seventh and eighth graders have traveled across town to attend Breakthrough Central Texas' Saturday school at St. Andrew's Episcopal School. They do introductory cheers in groups before settling in for a day of learning.
When they were selected to be part of Breakthrough, they agreed to participate in monthly classes as well as an intensive summer school program.
In one corner of the classroom, Jessica Slade watches. The program she envisioned 17 years ago has expanded from 41 kids from six Title I middle schools in the Austin Independent School District to 1,900 kids in Austin, Manor and Del Valle school districts.
Breakthrough Central Texas, formerly Breakthrough Austin, makes this promise to kids and their families: The program will help kids who don't have a family history of going to college make it from middle school to high school and onto college. Along the way, Breakthrough will help with tutoring, one-on-one education counseling and college application guidance.
The numbers are impressive: Ninety-eight percent of Breakthrough kids graduate high school on time, and 90% enroll directly into college. There are now 150 college graduates who came through Breakthrough.
Last month, Breakthrough Central Texas launched a goal of doubling the number of students in the area who become first-generation college graduates by raising $10 million to add an additional 1,500 students into the program in the next five years.
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Breakthrough began 17 years ago with Slade's experiences in the classroom as a middle school English teacher at a Title I school in the Austin Independent School District. She wanted to teach where she thought she would have more personal impact and make a lasting difference.
"It would be spring break when I finally knew all my middle school students," she says. "They were just about ready to leave and go onto the next school."
She noticed that all of the kids talked about going to college, and "I knew that a lot of those kids had potential to go onto college ... but I knew the vast majority wouldn't get there," she says. She later left the classroom and worked in the central office, but she didn't forget that frustration.
Slade, 48, grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., splitting her time between her parents, who divorced when she was 7 and later remarried, which gave her a half sister from one side and a half brother from the other.
Both of her parents were the first in their families to get a college degree.
In high school, Slade wanted to be an editor after she worked one summer at University of New Mexico Press. "I loved to read," she says.
As a college student she worked as a summer teacher at a Breakthrough program in Louisville, Ky., after a friend at the University of New Mexico who had been in the program the previous year "wouldn't stop talking about how wonderful it was."
Slade put in a universal application for the then-12 Breakthrough programs and got picked for Louisville.
"It really changed what I wanted to do," she says.
It was that program's first year, with 45 kids and 12 teachers. There was some training for the staff, she says, but when it came to the curriculum for summer class, "I made it up."
"I became that person," she says. "Now I couldn't stop talking about it."
She graduated from college and worked at a middle school in Fort Worth, where she created a similar summer program. "I was hooked," she says.
When she moved to Austin, she wanted such a program here. She talked to a lot of nonprofit organizations working in schools in Austin or with students in the community and didn't find the same program. The AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) for first-generation college students starts in high school.
The main difference, she says, is that Breakthrough starts when kids are in fifth or sixth grade and continues through middle school, high school and college. Slade knew a program needed to begin in middle school before kids start getting discouraged.
While working at the central office of the Austin school district, she continued to put out feelers for starting Breakthrough here.
She knew if she was going to do it, she had to jump in fully. She quit working for the district in December 2000 and began to work online for the national Breakthrough program while trying to launch it here.
She started with six middle schools in Austin. "A lot of it was who would let us in," she says. The program is now in 11 schools in the Austin district and all of the Del Valle and Manor middle schools.
A big selling point for kids and their families: Breakthrough takes them to the University of Texas campus in the summer. "They think they are going to see football," Slade says. Another draw for the kids is having teachers who are college students, many of whom have backgrounds similar to the students they teach.
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Breakthrough's mission includes working with the other members of the families. A lot of the families are super stressed and working hard, Slade says, but they want to be included in all the decisions related to their children's education. They all want their children to go to college, but they don't know how to get them there, including how to apply or how to get financial aid, she says.
"Parents are the X-factor," says Barry Aidman, who followed Slade as executive director of Breakthrough Central Texas. "We have to make sure they are with us every step of the way."
Being part of Breakthrough is a lot of work for families. Kids have to come to school in the summer and on Saturdays, and families have to encourage them. Breakthrough teaches family members how to use the city bus system to get where they need to go.
Jasmin Vara, 28, heard about Breakthrough as a sixth grader at what was then Fulmore Middle School. "I knew it was something I could not miss," she says. Vara was part of the second Breakthrough class.
She remembers Slade at that time for her energy and passion, she says, "and her willingness to support everyone."
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Vara says she was nervous the first time she stepped onto the University of Texas campus for the summer program. "That went away quickly," she says. "... I was welcomed by the summer teachers. They made the experience so much fun."
Breakthrough helped Vara apply to high schools, then to colleges, and through the financial aid process. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology at Middlebury College in Vermont and a master's degree in counseling at St. Edward's University.
Vara's experience with Breakthrough has come full circle. She was a teacher for the summer program when she was in college and now serves as a board member.
"The program is a family," she says. "All the roles that I've had as a student, as a teacher, as a board member, I can very confidently say it continues to be more of a family and what makes the program so special."
Claudia Ochoa remembers Breakthrough coming into her sixth grade class at Martin Middle School in 2003. Some of the kids in her class weren't interested in giving up their weekends or summers; Ochoa says she knew she was going. "It was just knowing the promise they made that they would help me get to college," she says. "That in itself was the reward."
She probably wouldn't have gone onto college without her Breakthrough adviser, Ochoa says. Her grades pointed to the challenges she was going through, but "my adviser was telling me I was going to do it."
And when she got to Texas State University to study to be a bilingual educator, Ochoa says, she would not have continued without Breakthrough. "There was self-doubt and imposter syndrome happening, which makes that path very nebulous and uncertain," she says. "Breakthrough kept me grounded."
She served as a Breakthrough teacher during summers, and after graduation she became an AmeriCorps member working at Breakthrough. She is now the college completion coordinator at Breakthrough.
The first few classes of students taught Breakthrough staff a lot. "We were making it up so much in the early days," Slade says.
First, Slade says, students kept moving. The goal was to use schools as a home base for tutoring sessions during the school year, but kids kept leaving the middle schools where they started. Many left the Austin school district and ended up in Manor or Del Valle districts. That was the big reason Breakthrough expanded into those districts.
Breakthrough had made a commitment to the students, regardless of where they went to school.
"It's like being in the Mafia," Slade says. "You can't get out." Advisers will still call them and still check their grades, she says.
Slade regrets that in the beginning they didn't put more emphasis on eighth and ninth grade, because that's a time when kids fall off, she says, "but it taught us a lot."
Instead of thinking of it as a middle school program, she says, she realized they needed to continue intensely through high school and even through college.
They realized that "the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade was brutal," she says.
In ninth and 10th grades, Slade says, lots of kids push back. "Adolescence is a roller coaster," but Breakthrough staff works with what kids bring to the table and tries to encourage them to keep going.
"We believed in the promise we made to them: 'We're going to get you to college,'" she says. "(Breakthrough is) a safe place for kids to come even if they are not doing well."
Staff members who interact with kids often have a similar story to the kids, or they have been Breakthrough participants. "It feels relatable," Slade says.
Ramping up the high school program meant even more support for getting kids through the college application process.
Jen Saucedo, 22, just graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and is now back in Austin working at National Instruments. She says that in high school she felt like she was getting a lot more individual attention through Breakthrough. "In high school, I felt like I was more like just a number," she says.
With Breakthrough, she says, "It wasn't a template used for every student. It felt more intimate."
Breakthrough connected her to the scholarship that got her to Rose-Hulman.
Saucedo's sister Brenda, 21, also enrolled in Breakthrough and is now a senior in marketing and management information systems at UT. She's already signed a full-time offer to start at Microsoft in August. She continues to meet with her Breakthrough mentor, who asks her question such as whether she needs any school supplies. "They'll help with textbooks if you need the money and can't afford the books," she says.
"My family's life has been changed by Breakthrough," she says. "I'm going to be able to give back to my family financially."
Brenda Saucedo wonders why she was chosen, and she thinks about all her friends who didn't get this opportunity when Breakthrough came into her world cultures class at Fulmore Middle School.
"Because of Breakthrough, I wasn't that kid I could have easily have been," she says.
"Breakthrough was the hope we needed," mom Rosa Saucedo says. Every day when the girls came back from camp, she saw them happy and excited. "I got to see the light in their eyes when they got to see the different possibilities for them," she says.
And more lessons
When Breakthrough's first classes began to hit college campuses, Breakthrough staff learned more lessons: The kids didn't have the support system that their peers on campus had.
Slade remembers one student who went to college in Ithaca, N.Y., not knowing anyone and not having anyone in his family he could talk to about college. All the kids around him had family who had been to college before. He ended up calling Michael Griffith, the current executive director of Breakthrough. Now there's an intentional program around Breakthrough students in college that Ochoa leads.
"It gets hard," Ochoa says. "There are different circumstances that they go through. They're having to work full time and go to school. ... There is a place where students say they can't do it anymore. We serve as motivation to them."
Karen Arrendondo, who is now the communications and community engagement coordinator at Breakthrough, started as a sixth grader at Martin Middle School in 2007. Arrendondo went to Texas State and remembers getting a lot of help with financial aid forms and guidance about switching majors from social work to communications. "My junior year, it hit me: I need Breakthrough," she says. Ochoa was her college adviser. "If it weren't for Claudia, I wouldn't be here right now," she says. "She kept inviting me to Breakthrough events. She made me feel so special."
As Breakthrough was evolving, so was Slade's personal life. During that first summer class in 2002, she was hugely pregnant with her first child, who was born at the end of August. Her children, Lia, 11, Ellis, 15, and Gray, 17, are the big reason she decided she needed to leave Breakthrough in 2007. She now works part time for the Webber Family Foundation, which she got to know while looking for funding for Breakthrough.
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When Slade left Breakthrough, the first-year students were entering their senior year of high school. "I really felt like I was a startup person," she says. "I loved the work, but I felt there would be other people that would be able to do what they could do. I never felt like I would be able to do better."
To get the organization to grow in scale, it would need someone else, she says. "Someone else could do it better than I could," she says.
Slade is mission-driven, says Aidman. "To her, this is a calling and not about her own ambition ... she cares about the results and not her own image in this venture."
Aidman had a lot more experience over a long career in education. He had been one of Slade's professors during graduate school at the University of Texas. "It was wonderful for him to say, 'Here's a bunch of ideas,'" she says.
When Aidman took over, Breakthrough had six classes of 40 kids each, or about 240 kids. He began increasing the number of kids in each class, which now number about 300 each.
"Jessica and her team had created a fantastic foundation and culture," he says. "We were able to build on that."
Breakthrough began to work with AmeriCorps, created a data management system to better track students and developed "standards of service of what this should be about," he says.
Even though Slade wasn't there for the day to day, she stayed connected and helped plan the transition and bought furniture for a new building.
Slade, Aidman says, modeled how to make the transition when it was time for him to go back into the college classroom. He's now at Texas State. Michael Griffith, who had been program director, stepped into the role of executive director.
"There's no founder's syndrome here," Griffith says. "It's unusual." He, Aidman and Slade have developed a close friendship.
Something that has been present throughout, Griffith says, is "that we are a learning-curious organization, that we are student- and family-first, and that we're going to be brave and take big steps alongside them."
The new challenge grant is about being brave. It's about turning Central Texas from the worst region of the state for the number of first-generation college graduates to the best region. And then, after that's accomplished, Griffith says, they will set a new North Star.
"We're committed to engaging the entire community in this," he says.
Slade has continued to work behind the scenes. Now she's co-chairing the $10 million Breakthrough Challenge as a volunteer. When the challenge was announced in September, Breakthrough alumni came to cheer on the organization.
"It's fun to go back and see familiar faces," she says. "The kids have gotten a lot taller and a lot older."
One dream that has been realized: Breakthrough kids are making an impact on the community. "All that talk we had that children are our future, that they are going to be our teachers," she says. "Oh, how great it happened."
Now, Slade is setting her sights on the next goals: More kids in Breakthrough and a board filled with Breakthrough graduates.
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