A real Breakthrough

Students teaching students: Innovative summer program offers a win-win model for middle schoolers

Students teaching students: Summer program offers win-win model

Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School
Breakthrough Houston Director Kathy Heinzerling speaks with  a group of new teachers in the St. John's School Library. Courtesy of Breakthrough Houston
Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School
Breakthrough students dissect a frog. Courtesy of Breakthrough Houston
Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School Collaborative
Breakthrough teaching alumni frequently go on to serve with other teaching programs, including Teach for America (TFA). Heinzerling notes that Breakthrough faculty are four times more likely to be offered TFA posts than the average applicant. Courtesy of Breakthrough Collaborative
Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School
Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School
Breakthrough Houston St. Johns Middle School Collaborative

Now in its 17th year, the Breakthrough Houston summer enrichment program has aimed to tackle the city's academic achievement gap by providing an engaging environment for middle school students from historically-underserved communities.

One of 25 nationwide sites in the Breakthrough Collaborative, the innovative project fosters a unique students-teaching-students model, which allows college-aged adults to serve as instructors for rising sixth through eighth graders.

“For our students, having young people as teachers who are bright, energetic and eager to teach and learn, is a win-win situation,” explains director Kathy Heinzerling from her office at the St. John’s School, which generously hosts the program each June and July.

“The teachers are true role-models for the students. Since our goal is for all our students to go on to college, having these college students as teachers gives them something towards which to strive.”

 Last year, six Houston teaching alumni applied for Teach for America posts . . . All six were accepted. 

This year, Breakthrough welcomes a cohort of 120 middle school students along with 24 college-aged teachers, each of whom were selected from a pool of more than 150 applicants.

On a national level, 75% of Breakthrough’s teaching alumni have gone on to pursue careers in education, as teachers, administrators and policy makers.

Heinzerling points out that former Breakthrough faculty members are four times more likely to be offered teaching positions with Teach for America (TFA). Last year, six Houston program alumni applied for TFA posts, and all six were accepted.

In the Breakthrough classrooms, a cadre of middle schoolers gain exposure to a wide array of topics that encourages students to cultivate their own interests. Young teachers help to craft a core curriculum of math, science, history and literature, which is then supplemented by electives as varied as "Drumming," “Alternative Energy” and “Race, Education and Why We Care.”

Veteran instructor Aby Cisneros — who began teaching with Breakthrough Houston in 2010 and who will work at the soon-to-be-launched Birmingham campus this summer — feels that such an approach allows middle schoolers to see learning as “cool.”

“At Breakthrough," she says, "students are taught that being smart is a good thing and that having a desire to learn is a good thing as well.”

Efforts to ensure the academic success of participants extend well beyond the summer, with a school year program for 7th and 8th graders that offers tutoring and prepares students to apply for admission to competitive Houston-area high schools. In recent years, students have gone on to attend St. John’s School, Debakey High School for Health Professions, Episcopal High School and Carnegie Vanguard. High school-aged Breakthrough alumni also partake in a college readiness program.

To learn more about Breakthrough Houston, including how to get involved with the program, click here.