Urban youth seeing dreams of college come true

Breakthrough Miami targets high-achieving minorities using innovative approach

D. Kevin McNeir | 10/24/2013, 9 a.m.
When Ariel Edwards, 31, was a student at Miami Central, she knew that the odds were stacked against her. But ...

When Ariel Edwards, 31, was a student at Miami Central, she knew that the odds were stacked against her. But the mostly-A student says she was determined to attend college. Today, after earning her B.A. in English Literature and Business from Florida State University and an M.S. in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University, she has abandoned dreams of becoming an attorney in order to return home and help other students like her — intellectually-gifted minority youth who need help in navigating their way out of poverty and into the Academy. As a senior site director for Breakthrough Miami she believes she is really making a difference each and every day.

“I was teaching at Miami Edison Middle School before joining Breakthrough Miami in 2009,” she said. “But I wasn’t able to be as creative as I wanted. We were pretty much teaching to the test because there was so much emphasis placed on high-stakes testing. In high school, I was exposed to opportunities outside of my neighborhood that allowed me to study abroad, get the assistance of a determined mentor and realize that I could do so much more with my life. Breakthrough Miami focuses on hands-on learning and brings the subject matter to life for its students. It reinforces the notion that there are other ways of learning — and illustrates how many youth can thrive if they are just challenged a bit more and then encouraged along the way.”

More about Breakthrough Miami

The eight-year, tuition-free academic enrichment program provides motivated middle-school students from underserved communities with the tools they need to achieve their most ambitious goals in life. Older students serve as teachers, mentors and role models utilizing a students-teaching-students model. About 1,100 students are in this year’s program. According to CEO Elissa Vanaver, they devote six weeks in the summer, several Saturdays a month and attend tutoring and workshops because they are determined to “breakthrough the social, cultural and economic barriers to high achievement.”

“No other program targets high-achieving kids like ours and we begin to recruit them when they are in the fourth grade,” she said. “Their academic gifts are not the question — the reality is that most of them meet several national indicators that would suggest that the road to college will extremely difficult. So, we try to remove the barriers.”

Most of the program’s students meet at least three of the following criteria: low-income home; under-resourced community; reduced or free lunch; single-parent home; English as a second language; first generation to attend college; or racial/ethnic minority.

“Our goal is to make our students more competitive, expose them and their families to all kinds of opportunities and get them into colleges — many of which they may know little or nothing about,” Vanaver added.

“Two other things distinguish us from other programs: we use a students-teaching-students approach that works particularly well with such a diverse group of kids and then we intentionally follow our students from the time they begin in the fifth grade until their successful college matriculation,” she noted. “Underserved kids often need an anchor and mentoring at different points in their lives. They know they can rely on us.”

Seeing is believing

Wayne Neunie, 41, has been an assistant principal and principal, devoting the past 13 years to education. He joined Breakthrough Miami last May as the director of education. He says he had heard about the program but when he toured several of their sites [which include: Random Everglades, Miami County Day, Carrollton and Palmer Trinity] he was “blown away.”

“The kids came every day for the six-week summer session, on Saturdays we had as many as 220 students and about 100 in the college program,” he said. “They all came because they wanted to and because we’re doing something that is instrumental in their lives. They see the difference this program makes. As a Black man from England, I know life can be difficult but I try to practice what I preach. I tell them you have to work hard and emphasize that effort requires zero talent. We’re here to help them foster their potential but they have to put in the hours — long hours.”

Go to www.breakthroughmiami.org for more information or call 305-646-7210. New student recruiting will begin in November.