Breakthrough Miami is defined by the people who lean in, learn and lead together. As we commemorate 30 years of breakthroughs, we celebrate the stories of vision, commitment, and engagement that our legacy has been built upon. Our “30 for 30” reflection series featuring some of our most engaged, focused and impassioned members of the Breakthrough Village.
Breakthrough is a place of purpose and we invite you to take a part in this important work.
As a former middle and high school principal, Jim is proud of the work Breakthrough has accomplished over three decades to expand its reach to more students in more communities. “Breakthrough Miami is exceptionally impressive. Starting with 40 students at one site and growing to 1,300 students at 8 sites is huge. It really shows Breakthrough’s vision, commitment, and passion.” The partnership between Breakthrough Miami and the Trust is unique, Jim shares, as the organizations have always been mission-aligned,
“We both believe in, and support, evidence-based programs, and Breakthrough’s summer programming aligns with the Trust’s goals.” Both organizations have been committed to a focus on advancing educational equity through high-quality programming, “A core part of the Trust, which Breakthrough represents and does well, is providing targeted support to the most vulnerable communities.”
Breakthrough Miami’s funding from The Children’s Trust supports its signature 6-week Summer Institute. For the Trust, summer programming is not just about mitigating summer slide,
“It’s about using the summer to ramp up and prepare kids for academic success in the next school year as well as post-secondary success. These are critical years for kids, but particularly for kids from underserved communities and this program changes the trajectory of their lives. The right adult, the right organization, somebody loving them, supporting them, cheering them on, providing tough love when tough love is needed is what makes kids successful and helps them to overcome adversity.“
Jim recalls his first visit to Breakthrough Summer Institute and the energy and excitement that radiated from the classrooms. He was struck by the passion the student Teaching Fellows brought to their lessons and how they made the students come alive.
“For students to view their teacher as a role model is profound. Hiring great people with great ethics and integrity who are walking the walk and opening kid’s minds is critically important.”
When asked about his proudest Breakthrough moment, Jim recounted,
“I’m very proud of Breakthrough, because they understand that you can’t become stagnate, you have to evolve year-after-year to meet the needs of the community and doing that can be difficult. A critical example of this was during the pandemic. As the Trust pivoted, Breakthrough pivoted. They were asking themselves, How do we meet the needs of our students and their families? As partners, we weren’t going to let the students go by the wayside, we were going to find a way to support children the best we can, by making the best choices for them using the best information we had. Moving to the virtual environment to support children as much as we could was critical and to be able to have the leadership and vision of the Breakthrough board, leadership and staff to do this was very brave and courageous and, most importantly, the right thing to do.”
As Jim reflects on Breakthrough Miami’s impact in the community over three decades, he reminds us why it’s so important for the community to continue supporting and investing in this work, “Supporting organizations like Breakthrough is the real impact of the Trust. Everything we do to impact Miami is through our providers. We invest in the best providers who are continuously learning to improve this community. Breakthrough has been a remarkable organization and hires the right people to do this work.”
Lily’s Breakthrough journey started as a 9th grader at Gulliver Prep who, at the time, was exploring the intersection between her dual passions for entrepreneurship and the biomedical sciences. Lily discovered Breakthrough Miami through Gulliver’s Business Club, which aims to broaden students’ view of the business world and the myriad of career paths they might choose to pursue. The partnership between Gulliver’s Business Club and Breakthrough creates opportunities for the independent schools’ students to share their passion and interests with Breakthrough Scholars, exposing them to new concepts and ideas through a more relatable approach. Lily began volunteering as a teaching assistant on Breakthrough Super Saturdays and was soon provided an opportunity to lead the Entrepreneurship class. She reflects,
“It was very much like trying to learn to swim at the deep end of the pool, but it was a lot of fun and I grew to really love the Breakthrough Scholars.”
This was the beginning of a transformational 4-year leadership journey with Breakthrough where she grew from a timid underclassman to a confident, experienced student-teacher holding multiple leadership roles at the Gulliver site including Breakthrough Club President and Vice-President of the Business Club.
From that Saturday forward, Lily would manage her own classroom, develop her own lesson plans, and inspire a curriculum that spoke to the unique needs and interests of her Scholars. “I worked with the Business Club to figure out what was working and what wasn’t working and that’s how we came up with the Stock Trading elective.” Lily introduced an elective in stock trading to Breakthrough’s Gulliver site – a hands-on, project-based curriculum that provides an introduction to trading in the stock market and engages Scholars in a year-long trading simulation that allows them to buy and sell stock with virtual currency. The Investr mobile app is in tune with the real market and teaches them how to analyze companies and align their investments with their personal ethics. Lily reflects, “The simulation allows Scholars to think about the market in a broader context.”
Lily’s evolving leadership trajectory at Breakthrough over the past four years has been nothing short of transformational.
“During the pandemic, I attended a virtual NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Diversity Leadership Conference that changed my life. It made me think more about equity, and Breakthrough embraced that.”
As a future Pre-med student, Lily had been following the pandemic closely, and inspired by the conversations at the conference, delved deeper into the data around health disparities to better understand the impact of Covid-19 on communities of color. Lily was deeply impacted by what her independent study around the topic of health disparities was revealing and felt compelled to share these insights with her Breakthrough community. Lily stepped up into a new leadership opportunity, volunteering to lead a session as part of our Breakthroughs and Bridges program, an annual convening of Breakthrough Scholars, Teaching Fellows and Volunteers to explore identity, bias and privilege along with the issues affecting their communities. “Breakthroughs and Bridges is really that safe space to talk about important issues that don’t always get talked about – more mature, serious topics that deserve to be thoroughly discussed.” Through this experience, Lily was able to build her knowledge and understanding of how different groups are impacted by the inequities in our healthcare system and decide the issues she will tackle as a future healthcare professional and public health advocate.
“I’m really grateful that Breakthrough has given me a platform to talk about what’s important to me. Finding out that there are people who believe in me, that are invested in the same issues as I am, and willing to tackle them was inspirational”.
When asked about how Breakthrough has impacted her personally, Lily reflects, “Breakthrough opened my eyes and made this space for so many wonderful friendships.” She also shared why it’s important for our community to continue to invest in Breakthrough’s unique students-teaching-students model. “Breakthrough encourages its Teaching Fellows to develop a real connection with Scholars. Being a mentor to these Scholars is really a great privilege, but it’s also a great experience for them to know that they have adults who have their back – that they don’t have to carry the world on their shoulders.”
Lily plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania where she will major in Biology. She hopes to pursue an MD/MBA with a medical specialty in neuroscience.
Mikayla started her Breakthrough journey as a quirky, energetic 4th grader at Chapman Elementary who was intrigued by the atypical summer school experience that Breakthrough presented.
Motivated by ‘fear of missing out’ and a competitive spirit, Mikayla enrolled at Breakthrough’s Palmer Trinity site with a few other rising 5th grade classmates. “Being ahead academically was the biggest pull factor for me into the program.” Breakthrough’s Summer Institute curriculum is designed to prepare Scholars for subject mastery in their next grade level. Mikayla recounts the impact of being exposed to some of the more advanced literary works before the other students in her grade, and how elated she was to be reading Shakespeare in the 4th grade. “I thought I was so cool because I was reading Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course, everything had to be explained to me, but it was super cool to me.”
Breakthrough has always fostered an environment where Mikayla feels comfortable being her authentic self. As a self-described “old soul”, Mikayla found connection and friendship at every level of her Breakthrough site. From fellow Scholars to her Volunteers and Teaching Fellows who were just a few years older, Mikayla had found her tribe of intelligent, deep thinkers, who gave her permission to own her achievements.
“The accelerated structure allowed us to explore real-world topics such as the women empowerment conversations that were just for the girls that helped me to embrace myself as a female.”
As a rising 9th grader headed to BreakthroughU, Mikayla saw volunteering as a way to stay connected to Palmer Trinity – a community that she had considered “family”. “Being a student and being able to interact with all of the volunteers and Teaching Fellows, and knowing that one day that could also be me, was also a very big push to becoming a Volunteer.”
As a 9th grader, Mikayla became one of the most trusted Volunteers gaining her membership into an informal group her Site Director affectionately referred to as her “Rockstar Volunteers.” These volunteers were entrusted with more progressively responsible duties and tasks. Three years into her volunteer journey, Mikayla was promoted to an opportunity that would allow her to grow and evolve while staying engaged with her Palmer Trinity community. As an AmeriCorps Member, Mikayla is providing year-round support to students as an Academic Success Coach who makes sure her Scholars stay on track academically, while helping them to navigate their interests. Mikayla reflects on the impact this internship has had on her.
“There are always certain kids who are just going to absolutely touch your heart. I met some of those kids over the summer, and during the school year I’m leading these kids, supporting them, making sure that everything’s okay with them, and I get to be there for them more directly.”
Mikayla is now a Senior at Everglades Preparatory Academy in Homestead. She’s currently applying to college and hopes to attend the University of Florida where she plans to major in Zoology. An avid animal lover, she wants to pursue a career in Zoology research.
As we celebrate our 3rd Annual Gratitude Week, Mikayla is grateful for her Breakthrough family who greeted her as a 5th grader with welcoming arms. “You can genuinely tell that everyone who works with Breakthrough loves and enjoys their job.”
A valued corporate leader and community partner in Miami, Carnival Cruise Line has served as a powerful example of how corporations can unite communities through a culture of service and philanthropy.
Since the early 1990s, Linda Coll has directed community investment at the Carnival Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Carnival Corporation committed to empowering youth and enhancing education in the South Florida community.
Breakthrough Miami’s relationship with the Carnival Foundation was ignited 25 years ago, and guided by Linda’s vision, evolved into an enduring symbiotic partnership defined by a mutual commitment to educational excellence. After seeing the program in action, Linda was inspired by the palpable excitement and energy student teaching fellows had generated in their classrooms. Looking to expand Carnival’s impact in the community, particularly in the education arena, Linda could sense that the model was unique and truly special. She said to herself, “We’ve got something here. This is something I want to be a part of.”
Over the years, Linda’s involvement with Breakthrough has revealed the effectiveness of our unique approach in influencing how students show up in the classroom.
“The Breakthrough Miami Scholars loved their teachers and that has a lot to do with the students-teaching-students model. They leave Breakthrough very motivated. When you speak to a Breakthrough Scholar, they don’t talk about “if” I’m going to college, they talk about “when” I’m going to college. It’s just a whole different mindset for these kids.”
Over the years, the Breakthrough Miami and Carnival Foundation partnership has transcended expectations. What began as a modest annual investment supporting Breakthrough during its start-up phase, has flourished into a truly synergistic partnership that leverages Breakthrough’s programmatic expertise and Carnival’s visionary leadership and capacity. Linda reflects, “The Breakthrough Miami partnership has enhanced our own high school scholarship and mentoring program.” For over a decade, Breakthrough Miami program staff have facilitated academic counseling and support workshops for the Carnival Mentoring and Scholarship Program. The partnership also enables Carnival Scholars to participate in Breakthrough Miami programs, thereby increasing the number of students meeting the award criteria for the prestigious Carnival Scholarship and maximizing Breakthrough’s reach and impact. Additionally, each year outstanding Breakthrough Scholars are awarded the Carnival Scholarship to support their post-secondary education. Fourteen scholarships have been awarded to Breakthrough Scholars in the last three years.
“We’ve grown over the years from just being a donor to really collaborating with Breakthrough and making this a win-win partnership where we’re not only supporting your Breakthrough Scholars, but you are supporting our students that we’re mentoring. So I can’t think of a better partnership. It really excites me when I speak about Breakthrough and Carnival together because I think when we collaborate, we’re able to do a lot more together.”
The partnership has opened so many doors for Scholars like Gricelda Ramos who learned about Breakthrough as a fourth grader attending Riverside Elementary, through the Heat Academy, a Carnival Foundation grantee. Named a “Superkid” by CBS4, elected Vice-President of her class at MAST Academy, and inducted into the National Honors Society, Gricelda went on to attend Dartmouth, earned her Master’s at Johns Hopkins and is now a foreign service officer with the State Department serving in El Salvador. Linda reflects, “She’s a poignant example of what happens when two organizations work in the same direction. We are changing and shaping lives together.”
Miranda Silva began her Breakthrough journey as a uniquely determined and focused 5th grader looking to level up academically while serving her community in a more impactful way. But what she found was something greater – a character-building experience that will prepare her for becoming a future politician and environmental advocate who leads with compassion.
As a student still navigating her way through social dynamics, Miranda recalls her first summer at the Carrollton site and the impact her site staff had on how she engaged and connected with other Scholars,
“We have a sense of perspective that we get from Breakthrough because they give us so much empathy and compassion. That’s one of the most important qualities we have as human beings – the ability to connect with someone else or put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”
This new sense of mindfulness and self-awareness allowed Miranda to form many strong, lasting friendships with other Scholars over the years.
Since as early as the 4th grade, Miranda has shown a devoted interest in politics and community activism. As recent immigrants from Spain, Miranda and her family paid close attention to the shift in political discourse in the U.S. She understood that in order to pursue a career in politics, she would need to become more intentional about her grades and invest more time serving her community. Breakthrough’s accelerated, students-teaching-students model proved transformative for Miranda, enabling her to understand complex concepts from the perspective of a peer.
“It’s just the way the Teaching Fellow relates the topic to us. She’s young — she knows what’s going to make us understand and how it’s going to help us in the future.”
As a result, Miranda’s grades in the STEM subjects improved dramatically, putting her on a path towards academic excellence. Now an 8th grader, Miranda reflects, “Breakthrough helped me skyrocket.”
Breakthrough has also provided Miranda with opportunities to grow as a student leader and nurture her passion for politics. Through her site’s mock elections process, Miranda gained hands-on experience working with her classmates to run two successful campaigns for Class Treasurer and Class President. Wise beyond her years, Miranda reflects her experience as Class President, “I understand the responsibility of being a student leader, the power this office holds, and how to deal with that responsibility.” Miranda has also continued to pursue other leadership opportunities such as Student Government Assembly and Service Club.
Through her hard work and persistence, new doors of opportunity have opened for Miranda. With the support of Breakthrough’s school options counseling, Miranda was accepted into the Ransom Everglades School, one of few students admitted as an 8th grader. Five years into her journey, Miranda reflects on what the experience has meant to her, “Breakthrough helped me find exactly what I want to do when I grow up.” Miranda aspires to attend Yale University and she plans to major in political science and philosophy. Her dream is to become a politician, activist and political commentator.
Darren Printemps began his Breakthrough journey as an eager, bright-eyed 6th grader, full of “avid aspirations to become his best self and make lasting friendships”. Darren, now a Senior at the University of South Florida, reflects on how Breakthrough delivered on those aspirations and inspired his path to become an educator.
Darren’s first Breakthrough summer as a rising 6th grader attending John F. Kennedy Middle School was transformative on all accounts. As a Scholar at Breakthrough’s Miami Country Day School site, he met three of his best friends and reached a new level of self-awareness and confidence that enabled him to trust his own decision-making and become a leader amongst his peers.
The students-teaching-students model proved to be a game-changer for him, both academically and socially. For the very first time in his academic trajectory, Darren felt understood, supported and seen. That’s one of the positive effects of Breakthrough’s novel peer-to-peer teaching model which trains high school students to teach middle school students, facilitating student-teacher interactions that are more relatable, patient and compassionate. Darren’s near-peer Teaching Fellows had a profound effect on him, particularly on his emotional growth and maturity. He recalls the role that then-volunteer, now-Site Director, Kenneth Garrett, played in Darren’s evolving social emotional development as a mentor and African-American male role model, “I had my [share of] teachable moments and Kenneth always made sure I learned from my mistakes. As someone who had the ability of capturing and motivating an entire room of Scholars to be their best selves, he was the one person I can actively remember helping me build my social and communication skills in and out of the classroom.”
It was the life-changing mentoring relationships and friendships Darren developed with Breakthrough site leaders that motivated him to become a Teaching Fellow and to pursue a career in teaching and eventually, his PhD. For the first time, he saw himself in the individuals who were teaching him – teachers who actually looked like him.
Growing up, as an observant Scholar I noticed the mannerisms and attitudes the Teaching Fellows displayed as they led and encouraged us to be ourselves. I saw myself in them, teaching with passion and humility. It’s what inspired me to want to become an educator.”
As an educator, Darren seeks to bring compassion, support, understanding, and love to his classroom.
Darren’s involvement in Breakthrough as a Scholar and Teaching Fellow illustrated the power of a high-quality education, the doors it could open, and the importance of diverse representation in the teaching profession. Currently, only 7% of all public school teachers are African-American and only 2% are African-American males. Breakthrough is changing this narrative through our unique near-peer learning model, which has inspired 76% of Breakthrough teaching fellows nationally to pursue education careers. As the nation’s largest pre-professional teacher program, Breakthrough introduces minority high school and college students to careers in teaching, seeking to build a more diverse and socially conscious educator workforce.
Darren is a firm believer in the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” and Breakthrough Miami has been that enduring Village and source of support and encouragement through his adolescence and into young adulthood.
“Breakthrough Miami is a place that cultivates Scholars and Teaching Fellows from all ages and backgrounds into becoming better educated, passionate and positive mentors. Since 2011, as a Scholar, growing into a Breakthrough volunteer, Alumni Board committee leader, and 3-year Teaching Fellow veteran, Breakthrough provided me with the love, leadership and guidance to become the leader I am today.”
For Darren, Breakthrough has also been like a second home to him. “Breakthrough Miami is the one place in my life where I can always return to, where every experience and encounter has had a lasting impact on me.”
Briana Ruiz Christophers is a poignant example of how Breakthrough Miami’s unique students-teaching-students model fosters a love of learning while also inspiring a purpose-driven career. Briana is an aspiring pediatrician-scientist interested in bringing social justice to the lab bench and hospital bedside.
Briana began her Breakthrough journey in the summer of 2007. Almost 15 years later, she reflects on Breakthrough’s role in developing her into the achiever she is today and the medical research scientist she’s becoming. A graduate of Princeton University, Briana recently started her 4th year of the MD PhD program at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. She credits Breakthrough’s project-based instructional approach for her love and appreciation for the learning process.
“Breakthrough taught me that learning can be fun and that I should be involved in my learning. Through learning, you can eventually go on to do things that really matter.”
For Briana, that meant going to medical school and becoming a physician researcher who will discover the scientific breakthroughs that will help her future patients. “My career path as a scientist is about learning new things everyday and trying to figure out things that we don’t know.
As a Scholar, Briana greatly admired her Teaching Fellows and was inspired by their commitment to community, and making sure that “those who came behind them had access.” “Breakthrough planted that seed that learning mattered and is something that I could contribute to.” Briana took these lessons to heart and is now involved in her own social justice work. She has worked to amplify the voices of Latinx, POC, and first-generation/low-income students through organizations like Princeton Latinos y Amigos, the Latinx Collective and initiatives like Project Welcome Mat: A Guide for First-Generation Students.
Empowered by her Breakthrough experience, Briana continues to develop as an emerging thought leader advocating for greater diversity in the physician scientist pathway.
Briana’s doctoral research in the area of Developmental Biology focuses on muscle development in Drosophila (fruit flies!).
Elissa Vanaver’s Breakthrough story began while she was an editor at the Miami Herald in the mid- to late-1990s. The program was still relatively under the radar, and its supporters affectionately referred to the organization as the “best kept secret” in town. As her son David grew through his experience in the Summer Institute, Elissa recognized the potential of the Breakthrough model to level the playing field and create greater equity in education.
“My son had a fabulous summer. He made friends with kids he never would have met otherwise. I didn’t realize it then, but he had really started a journey of understanding his place in the world and how privileged he was; how lucky he was. It was absolutely the best program I had ever seen in any respect.”
David completed two Breakthrough summers, but Elissa was inspired to commit on a deeper level, because in her own words, she “was hooked for life.” “That an organization could inspire so much joy in students and advance their learning and make learning fun was really phenomenal.”
Over the years, Elissa’s service would help grow the organization’s footprint as she steadily progressed along the Breakthrough leadership continuum from the Advisory Committee cohort that ushered Breakthrough into a new era of program expansion and financial independence, to founding Board Chair of the newly established 501(c)3, and eventually Chief Executive Officer. During this time, Breakthrough Miami’s leadership worked to build a community of supporters that spread all over the county.
There’s no doubt that Elissa’s involvement in Breakthrough over more than two decades has impacted her personally.
“I’m a journalist at heart and what motivates me is people and people’s stories. Breakthrough, on multiple levels, brings people together in a real authentic way. It brings diverse communities together by design. It fosters genuine relationships that break down walls between people.”
Elissa is now the Chief Executive Officer of the Breakthrough Collaborative, an umbrella organization supporting 24 affiliates across the country, including Breakthrough Miami. She has a strong vision for Breakthrough’s future and believes in its mission of advancing educational equity just as much today as she did twenty years ago. “There’s just so much opportunity to change the world in what we do. The world needs more Breakthrough – there’s no question about it.”
Recognized as one of the most dedicated advocates for young children in the country, David Lawrence Jr. played an integral role in bringing the students-teaching-students model to Miami, helping the program raise, “money, friends and attention” during its early days.
Through his work as the founder of The Children’s Movement of Florida, the region’s strongest voice on young children’s issues, Dave was pivotal in building public support for Miami-Dade’s first dedicated funding source for children in addition to the state’s Universal Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program.
Dave recalls, “I was expected to — and expected myself to — participate in the community.” As a Ransom Everglades board member, Dave served as a trusted mentor to the founding leaders.
When asked what was special and distinct about the program model that kept him engaged for so many years, Dave replied,
“I’ve lived a whole life of saying ‘yes’ and Breakthrough Miami is all about saying ‘yes’ to young people and giving them a chance. Not to give up on their dreams, but to have dreams.” Dave added that, “The beauty of Breakthrough is that there are no low expectations. There’s an expectation that you will succeed.”
Dave’s involvement in the program created an opportunity for his own children to experience and embrace the spirit of volunteerism that was fostered at home.
“[My daughter] Amanda grew up in a home where we were expected to make a difference in other people’s lives, we thought it was not only emotionally rewarding but, in fact, inspirational.”
He made sure that his children understood that, “None of us can save the world, but we could sure make a difference in somebody else who might make an extraordinary difference in this world.” Dave recalls the impact of the Breakthrough Miami experience on Amanda, “She came away enthusiastic about the people she was helping. It reinforced my own sense that this is an important program that makes a difference in the lives and futures of young people and giving them a better chance for success in their own lives and in other people’s lives.”
Dave has been a mentor to countless emerging leaders looking to make their mark in Miami. “I [currently] mentor someone who has enormous potential and realizing that potential is the beauty of all of this. That’s what Breakthrough was all about – people having a chance to realize their potential.”
When asked about his vision for the future of Breakthrough Miami, Dave replied, “The beauty of Breakthrough is that it makes a difference in a great many people’s lives. What Breakthrough now does is worthy of expansion to every possible venue, every possible school. My hope is that Breakthrough in the years to come will help the community say, “Look at the difference we’ve made.” As a long-time supporter of Breakthrough Miami, Dave continues to invest because “It’s had an enormous impact on so many people. It’s a great gift to this community and can be a great gift to any community.”
As an early member of the SummerBridge Advisory Board, Dr. Eugene Sayfie served in a leadership role at a pivotal time in the organization’s development, helping to nurture the seed planted in 1991 with an inaugural class of forty Scholars. Dr. Sayfie’s belief in the promise of student potential and equitable educational opportunities, helped foster a community of supporters who galvanized to grow a partnership that would later evolve into an independent 501c3, Breakthrough Miami. Honoring Dr. Sayfie’s legacy, we also recognize the enduring, candid and heartfelt partnership and support of the family, who have been by our side as passionate advocates and avid supporters.
“Ive enjoyed the journey I have done everything that I set out to do. Help with education in the community, helping the education of young people…” “If you have a great education anything is possible – learn more, do more, don’t take shortcuts take the hardway because in the long run it will become easier.”
“Breakthrough Miami has grown from an aspirational vision 30 years ago to a treasured asset in our community. Breakthrough is a Village of partners who embrace students and serve as a steady network of support. Our mission is to empower our Scholars and to assist each student to aim for the stars and tap into his/her full potential.”
JuliAnne McDowell exemplifies one of the greatest stories of leadership that has helped shape our organization’s growth and profoundly expanded our impact.
“For me it was really exciting to merge these communities and provide these super smart dynamic kids with access to different opportunities that they were craving”
She has served in a leadership role at a pivotal time in the organization’s development, helping to nurture the seed planted in 1991. Julianne has furthered our important work with her creativity. Propelling the organization’s brand, supporters and affinity, many of the ideas she sparked have since become embedded, in a more formal way, into our organizational infrastructure, traditions and program. Her leadership has helped bring together enthusiastic volunteers with shared interests, enhancing the embedded service-learning partnerships at our host site schools, and bringing to life new programming support and traditions.
“I would like breakthrough scholar to be similar to saying I’m a Rhodes Scholar I want scholars teaching fellows and alumni to go around saying I am a Breakthrough Scholar and walk around with swagger” “I want colleges to accept our kids because they’re breakthrough scholars”
“Breakthrough means that really bright scholars have the opportunity to exceed what they may have been able to achieve because of the resources Breakthrough is able to provide.”
As a founding member of the Board of Directors and a dedicated professional with a vision for an inclusive and empowered community, Mike has played a vital role in ushering Breakthrough Miami’s transformative growth from a small operation with great promise to an independent 501(c)(3) with a multi-site service delivery model. His leadership and expertise have provided vigilant oversight of fiscal and operational health. Fueled by an unwavering belief in the promise of student potential and equitable educational opportunities, Mike has worked tirelessly to build and safeguard BTM’s financial foundation.
“When I started with Breakthrough it was called Summerbridge, and we were the Advisory Board. The purpose of it back at that time was really focused on the summer. It was focused on summer learning loss. It was focused on tutoring, teaching and getting people ready for the next year. Getting them to become more committed to those middle school years. Over time, it’s developed into so much more.”
John and Kendra Malloy are long-time supporters of Breakthrough Miami and for them, like many other families in our Village, volunteering has always been a family affair. Each of their four children, who all attended Ransom Everglades, have engaged with Breakthrough on various levels as volunteers, tutors, Teaching Fellows, and planning committee members, carrying on a family tradition of service and leadership.
Over the years, Breakthrough Miami has become one of the Malloy family’s most cherished nonprofit organizations. Kendra talks about the natural alignment between their family’s values and Breakthrough’s mission,
“Individually and collectively, education has been a top motivating priority for our family. We understand that by giving students access to educational opportunities, you’re cultivating the next generation of leaders.”
John is inspired by Breakthrough’s exceptionalism as an organization that consistently produces sustainable outcomes. He explains, “The results are huge. No other real, direct, long-term organization gives you that type of investment return.” Through his intimate involvement with Breakthrough as a volunteer and corporate partner, John believes that with more community support Breakthrough Miami could reach even more students to, “level the playing field for education and opportunity.”
When asked about how Breakthrough has grown and evolved over the years, their son, Liam, recalled how Breakthrough leadership nurtured and supported two of his Ransom Everglades classmates who wanted to bring their passion for swimming and water polo to Breakthrough’s Summer Institute. Breakthrough volunteers, Ashleigh and Chelsea Johnson conceived the idea and over three summers were able to expand the student-led Johnson Sisters Swimming Program to all 5th graders at Ransom Everglades’ Summer Institute site, eventually expanding the swimming and water polo program to all Breakthrough Summer Institute sites. Liam explained, “Breakthrough just grows that way because students come in starting things and it just keeps going.” Kendra agrees,
“It [Breakthrough] is one of those programs that’s not afraid of changing, adapting, and creating that entrepreneurial spirit of inclusion.”
Impressed and inspired by Breakthrough’s innovative, entrepreneurial and collaborative ethos, John and his daughter, Karlee, saw an opportunity to build on the organization’s already agile and immediate response and adaptation to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, John and his partners at RWC were looking for a way to support and engage the communities in which they worked during such tough economic and social times, and Karlee was looking for a way to merge her passions for running and education to support a cause greater than herself that might help connect people virtually during the pandemic. Breakthrough was also exploring creative ways to keep supporters and donors engaged during the pandemic. Birthed at the convergence of opportunity, mission, and space to innovate, the 2020 QuaRUNtine engaged over 200 supporters and raised $125K in just two weeks with support from RWC, providing critical funds for nearly 50 incoming 5th graders to begin their Breakthrough Scholar journey. Kendra recalls, “People, no matter where they were in the world, were joining in and really excited about it. So we thought here’s a benefit of us not being able to do something in person that we can raise money around and get the word out to a broader audience.”
John and his partners at RWC continue to support the race as lead sponsor. Karlee encourages Breakthrough supporters to start or join a team today and stay engaged on social media to bring awareness to Breakthrough’s mission of advancing educational equity, and the importance of mindfulness and healthy living.
On October 10, 1989, a History teacher at Ransom Everglades penned a letter that would set in motion the formation and founding of Breakthrough Miami. Joe Mauro known as “Mr. Mauro” to his students, came across an article in the Spring ‘89 edition of Independent School magazine that profiled a ‘rigorous preparatory program’ and innovative ‘school of education’ called Summerbridge. The cutting-edge program model, which was founded in 1978 by Lois Loofbourrow, had demonstrated proven success in, “preparing talented middle school students to attend academically strong high schools and college-age summer staff to go into teaching after graduation”. The program participants were primarily high-achieving traditionally marginalized youth who were top students at their schools. Staff members were recruited from independent schools all over the country, many as young as 14 years old because the program directors learned quickly that “age seemed to have very little to do with innate teaching and leadership ability.”
“If you were here in [Miami] in the late 1980s, it was a very divided city and I thought there was a real screaming out need for a way to address that. I saw that Summerbridge offered that opportunity.” When asked about why the Summerbridge model caught his attention, Joe recounted, “I saw in my own life what the opportunity to go to an elite school on a scholarship did for me and I didn’t see that opportunity being offered in Miami. I saw this as a way to bring Miami together.”
As Joe reflected on the letter to the Head of School he wrote over three decades ago and its lofty charge, he stated proudly that, “It [Breakthrough Miami] has done all those things for Ransom Everglades and beyond what I had initially envisioned. Joe hopes to see Breakthrough Miami continue its tradition of academic excellence and outreach to the people who need it.
Joe Mauro is the History and Social Science Department Coordinator at Ransom Everglades Middle School and will be celebrating his 40th year of teaching next fall.
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John Flickinger and Doug Weiser, Breakthrough Miami’s founding leaders, met over 50 years ago while students at Ransom Everglades. Neither John nor Doug knew then they would go on to build an enduring education pipeline model that would graduate 3,000 students with the majority being accepted into 4-year colleges.
In search of meaningful work that aligned with his unyielding focus on social justice and educational equity, John followed the spark lit by Joseph ‘Joe’ Mauro, then a Ransom Everglades teacher, to bring the Summerbridge student teaching model from the West Coast to Miami. A few months into the start of the program, Doug joined John as founding chair of the Advisory Board, motivated by a belief in the power of community, personal responsibility, and teamwork, in changing educational outcomes for Miami’s traditionally marginalized youth.
“Having the opportunity to be involved in a program that I believed was going to have measurable, tangible and visible results was important to me.” – John
John and Doug’s goal was two-fold: give highly motivated students from under-resourced communities access to the tremendous academic and social opportunities they were afforded at Ransom Everglades, while educating and transforming mindsets at Ransom through authentic connection to the community that was located just outside their walls.
“One of the things we wanted to see happen at the school was to help it become more diverse and expose the students, teachers, and families there to direct relationships with people they would not have otherwise met and interacted with.” – John
In the early 1990s Miami’s educational climate was ripe for a breakthrough – countywide high school graduation rates were less than 60%, college acceptance rates were less than 30%, and few programs addressed the root causes of poverty and underachievement. Breakthrough offered an asset-based vision from the start, “seek out talented students who lacked opportunity, open a door for them, help them step through it, and then see what happened.”
Breakthrough’s novel students-teaching-students model directly addressed the opportunity gap by exposing students to relatable “near peer” teachers who reflected the diversity of their community, a rigorous learning environment, intensive summer and weekend instruction, and a college-going culture that embraced high expectations.
As John and Doug reflect on the past 30 years, they’re reminded of how far the program has come from its humble start as a small cohort of 40 Scholars. One of John’s proudest moments as a co-founder was graduating Breakthrough Miami’s first class of Scholars in 1999, and “…seeing so many of them be accepted into reputable 4-year colleges. They did what we hoped that they would do.” Doug recounted the flood of emotion he felt when Breakthrough Miami reached the 1,000 Scholar mark in 2011, “When I learned that this program was serving over a thousand kids a year, that brought tears to my eyes.”
To date, the program has graduated approximately 3,000 Scholars.
When asked about the impact Breakthrough Miami has had on the Miami community, Doug was reminded of the exponential effect the program had on its volunteers from the community. “Breakthrough Miami gave them the opportunity to jump in and take part. All of those students who had that opportunity to engage with Breakthrough Scholars went out into the world and are now making their impact on education and other fields. It’s hard to quantify, but that’s the impact.” John believes that although Breakthrough predominantly operated in partnership with private and charter schools, the impact was felt in the public school arena. “I know that we impacted the [certified] teachers who worked with our program, our method of teaching and the culture we created – and found value in it.”
John and Doug’s vision for the future of Breakthrough Miami is to further expand the access and opportunity they helped open doors to thirty years ago. John sees more opportunities for Breakthrough to engage with the public school system, “It’d be great to see Breakthrough Miami expand with our public schools, while also inspiring young people to go into the teaching profession because there’s a desperate shortage of teachers nationwide.” Doug agrees
“I’d love to reach more people and more students, not only by inspiring partnership with the public schools, but also by inspiring teachers to teach the way students learn. That’s the way we reach more people.”
John and Doug continue to demonstrate their dedication to education. John has been integral with Beacon College Prep in Opa-Locka and Doug remains civically engaged and serves on the University of Miami’s Alumni Board of Directors.
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Terence Williams understands firsthand the power of Breakthrough Miami in bringing out the best in Scholars academically, socially, and creatively. After being introduced to the program by a close friend, Terence was anxious for his daughter, Morgan, a rising 4th grader at Palm Springs North Elementary in Hialeah to apply. They patiently waited a full year before Morgan was eligible to apply to Summer Institute, and in the summer of 2018, Morgan started her journey as a Breakthrough Scholar. Terence recalls his first impression of Breakthrough’s summer site staff,
“We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us, but from the very onset of our first day at the Gulliver site, we felt welcomed. It’s just the energy that the Teaching Fellows bring and everything’s a clap!”
Four years into Morgan’s Breakthrough Miami journey, Terence reflects on what the program has meant to him as a father, “Breakthrough means opportunities. As a parent, you want to give your child every opportunity.” Over the years, Morgan’s involvement in Breakthrough has exposed her to opportunities and relationships that have had a meaningful impact on her academic trajectory.
Through the school options counseling provided to Breakthrough Scholars, Terence and Morgan were exposed to the full myriad of middle school enrollment opportunities available across the County. Site Directors engaged in one-on-one coaching with families that not only opened their eyes to the broad range of resources available to students but also provided a clear plan for getting their Scholars into the middle or high school of their choice. Miami’s only organization offering families comprehensive school options advising, 90% of Breakthrough Scholars are attending specialized programming including magnets, charters, and independent schools such as MAST Academy, Coral Reef Senior High, School for Advanced Studies, TERRA, and iPrep Academy. Terence recalled, Site Directors also challenged the families that participated in these sessions to expand their thinking around what was possible for their children. In their school options sessions, Site Directors encouraged Scholars to ask themselves, “Why not us”? That question really resonated with the Williams’ and a few months later, Morgan applied and was accepted into all of her top choices for schools. This fall, Morgan will be entering her third year at Ransom Everglades. Opportunities like school options counseling, unique to Breakthrough, provide another pathway for Breakthrough Scholars to reach their full potential.
Another benefit of Morgan’s involvement in Breakthrough was the opportunity to prepare for Morgan’s success in the school year, “Academically, Breakthrough provides that precursor of the next grade level that gives students a leg up.” This aspect of the program became especially valuable to Morgan once she matriculated into a more academically rigorous program. Terence also appreciated the intentionality behind Breakthrough’s students-teaching-students model, “the teaching fellows can relate to the students because they’re still young; they make academics fun.”
However, it’s the relationships Morgan has developed with Breakthrough staff that has left the greatest impression on Terence.
“The Site Directors make you feel like family. I know my kid is taken care of. It’s almost like having a godparent looking over your back. You feel safe.”
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Senior Directors, Lauren Kellner Rudolph and Webber Charles joined Breakthrough Miami during a significant turning point in the organization’s life cycle that created opportunities that have helped shape them into the visionary leaders they are today.
As former educators in the Miami-Dade County Public School system, Lauren and Webber came to Breakthrough in 2007-08 with an eye towards supporting students in a more holistic and impactful way, building on the experience they gained teaching at schools located in under-resourced communities. At the same time, Breakthrough was expanding – solidifying new school partnerships – and generating new opportunities for team members like Lauren and Webber to grow and develop quickly within the organization. Very early in their Breakthrough careers, Lauren and Webber were given the latitude to lead confidently and boldly, inspiring their curiosity and desire to reach more Scholars in the community. Lauren lauds Breakthrough’s enduring culture of cultivating leaders,
“Anybody who spends any time, on any level, within the organization has the ability to grow. It is truly a learning organization for everybody it touches across the Village.”
Over the years, Lauren and Webber’s involvement with Breakthrough has shaped them tremendously, both personally and professionally. Lauren reflects, “I am who I am as a professional, social justice advocate, educator, and mentor because of being at Breakthrough the last 15 years.”
Webber recalled how he was personally impacted by his work with School Options, where he was more closely engaged with Scholar families helping to demystify the middle and high school application processes. The time he spent with parents in this program gave him a window into the unique struggles that many Breakthrough families face and how those factors impact their ability to advocate for their Scholars. Webber’s conversations with Scholar’s parents underscored the importance of addressing the needs of whole families to achieve more sustainable outcomes. Webber was also struck by the impact Scholar success had on their families, “Being successful in getting them (Scholars) into quality schools, I began to see the impact on the parent, as you improve the lot of the student, it inspires the parent to reach and consider the possibilities for themselves.” Webber saw a unique opportunity to further support our Scholars by empowering Breakthrough parents through programming options that inform families on topics such as mental health, financial literacy, and education advocacy. “A rewarding aspect of doing this work is seeing parents be able to empower themselves to hold the system accountable, and at a minimum, explore all the options for their children and seek them out.”
It’s been 15 years since Lauren and Webber were recruited to a small summer program embedded at Ransom Everglades Middle School campus. Today, Breakthrough helps more than 1,300 Scholars across Miami catch their dreams. Lauren and Webber have both witnessed Breakthrough’s evolution from the best-kept secret in education to one of the most respected education equity organizations in the region. Lauren recounts, “We went from “who are you?” to doors are opening because of who you are. There’s a respect for the work that we do and the quality of our Scholars.” A key ingredient to Breakthrough’s success has been a consistent focus on growth. Just as we nurture and encourage our Scholars to grow to their potential, we too, as an organization strive to optimize our impact. In just 30 years, Breakthrough has grown from a single site at Ransom Everglades serving grades 5-8 to eight sites serving grades 5-12. Breakthrough is one of only two affiliates under the national collaborative that can boast this level of growth and impact. And if the key ingredient is growth, the secret sauce is leaving no opportunity on the table.
“We look at partnerships in a really great way and leverage what this community has to offer.” Breakthrough plays a much larger role in the education ecosystem because of staff’s willingness to take on multiple roles and wear multiple hats. As a team, “we are wildly ambitious – we shoot every shot.”
As they look forward to the next 30 years, Lauren and Webber offer visionary outlooks for Breakthrough’s future. Webber envisions a more laser focus on organizational development to sustain Breakthrough’s growth and momentum. He also visualizes an expansion of the Breakthrough model to key metropolitan markets across the State capitalizing on the proliferation of school choice options on the horizon for Florida’s communities. For Webber, this expansion throughout Florida is important because of the generational impact Breakthrough has had on our Scholars and their families, “All of the impossible has become possible. They have greater faith in what they’re able to do in action. More control over destiny. There’s a level of empowerment that allows them to do that. Which is really powerful.”
Lauren’s vision for the future conveys an understanding that Breakthrough is more relevant and vital to student achievement than ever before. “We are uniquely aware that we are preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist yet – for careers that don’t exist yet.” Breakthrough has been deliberate about exposing Scholars to non-traditional courses in entrepreneurship, commercial real estate, and design-thinking to prepare them for the workforce of the future. As Lauren continues to conceptualize new student programs, she’s consistently asking, “How do we prepare a whole people for the diverse and challenging and innovative world ahead?”
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Laura was introduced to Breakthrough through her daughter, Emily, who served as a volunteer at the Ransom Everglades host site. It was through Emily’s transformational experience as a volunteer leader that Laura fell in love with Breakthrough’s mission:
“Through my daughter’s involvement, I had a front-row seat to what a students-teaching-students model looked like, and having recognized the advantages afforded to private school students I wanted to work to ensure that other students were afforded the same… Watching how this organization has been able to impact the lives of so many Scholars and their families over the years has been a true privilege to be a part of. I think Breakthrough Miami is one of the best examples of the power of people working together.”
Since she joined the Board of Directors six years ago, Laura Koffsky has been a deeply committed and engaged supporter of Breakthrough Miami. As Development Committee Chair, she has been instrumental in growing Breakthrough’s generous and resourceful network of donors and partners. As an active civic leader both locally and nationally, Laura leverages two decades of communications and nonprofit board experience to drive support for initiatives that strengthen Breakthrough’s community-wide impact. A passionate advocate for education and community, Laura is excited to work with our Board and Support-A-Scholar Host Committee this year to honor 30 years of breakthroughs and to salute the pioneers and stories of leadership, which have shaped Breakthrough Miami’s tremendous growth and impact over the last three decades.
As Laura has shared, Breakthrough Miami is a place of purpose and we invite you to take a part in this important work. Our virtual tribute ceremony and in-person celebration this Fall present new opportunities to expand our diverse Village of passionate and engaged visionaries.
Help us make more Breakthroughs Happen – make a donation to Support-A-Scholar.
Check back for more features on some of our esteemed and valued members of the Breakthrough Village.
Contributions to Support-A-Scholar include invitations to the two-part events.