Innovative program for Philly middle-schoolers preps them high school and beyond

‘The cost of the program is motivation,’ Michelle Palmer, Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia’s executive director, said

By: - April 6, 2022 9:36 am
Philadelphia students and their instructors meet at Germantown Friends School for the Breakthrough Program

Philadelphia students and their instructors meet at Germantown Friends School for the Breakthrough Program (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Afea Tucker

PHILADELPHIA — Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia is helping middle school students prepare for the future and changing lives one student at a time through their summer enrichment program and education training.

This is the time of the year when parents and students typically start to seek extracurricular summer activities and camp options. For many, summer activities can be costly and challenging to secure due to capacity limitations or even the competitiveness of student lotteries, wait-lists, and applications.

But for decades the Germantown Friends School has offered and continues to offer an unique and one of a kind citywide experience for middle and high school students through its Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia program. All parents and guardians have to do is complete an application form for consideration.

“The cost of the program is motivation,” said Michelle Palmer, executive director of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia.

“We are here June 27 to Aug. 5, so there is still plenty of time to sign up. Whether it’s to be a teacher, or a student. But our student enrollment is open and we are recruiting right now,” she said.

The Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia is designed to help launch motivated middle-school students on a path to competitive high schools, while also setting a foundation for college and career success.

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The program has a dual mission, while the curriculum helps prepare middle school students for future academic success, there is also a free training program for stellar high school students and college students interested in pursuing careers in education. All at no cost.

“We are an academic enrichment program that has been on the campus of Germantown Friends School for the past 27 years. Started in 1995. And so we have a mission that’s two-fold. We provide academic enrichment to rising seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students and we also are a teacher training program,” Palmer said.

“So we get college students that come from all over the country. And they come and they are with us for nine weeks. We give them two weeks of intensive training, and then we put them in the classroom,” Palmer continued. “But we put them in the classroom under the guidance of master teachers who are usually either from the School District of Philadelphia or Germantown Friends, or any other local school in the area. We call them instructional coaches.”

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The instructional coaches guide the teaching fellows during the Breakthrough sessions.

“They give them one-on-one support. They look at their classes every day and critique them on their lessons and help them with lesson plans and just give them overall guidance of what it takes to be a teacher,” Palmer said.

The teaching fellows also get to do professional development every afternoon.

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“We try to make sure that they have every tool that they need to get into the classroom. They’re with the students for six weeks. We make the program really fun for the kids,” Palmer said.

She came into her role as executive director of the Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia program in 2020 as the country was facing COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

“I started in February of 2020, right before the pandemic. At that time, I was the director of programming and we decided we were going to push forward and make sure that Breakthrough continued to run and service kids in the city of Philadelphia,” Palmer said.

“So we ran a virtual program, which was really successful. We had over 100 kids participate in that program. The students were excited about it because they didn’t have anything else going on because their schools were closed from March to May. Then after the fall of 2020, we were able to actually welcome the students back in person to Germantown Friends School (GFS) campus. We were lucky to have GFS open its doors. GFS made sure that they opened the doors for their own students so it’s easy for us to fall in line and utilize all the GFS protocols that were in place. And it’s been great,” Palmer said.

Now in the organization’s 27th year, the Summer Enrichment Program offers rising sixth-, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students a summer of challenging courses, creative activities and college preparation.

Throughout the summer, Breakthrough provides a six-week program that focuses on math, writing, literature and science.

“They also get to take two electives, which are designed by our teaching fellows. And it’s really whatever the teaching fellow has a passion for. Somebody had liked the idea of an intro to animaniacs so they did that. Another teaching fellow liked intro to Italian, there was somebody else who likes soccer,” Palmer said.

They’ve even offered an urban gardening class.

“It’s really whatever the passion the teaching fellow has,” Palmer said. “And then this year, the kids had the opportunity to take golf lessons with the Walnut Lane golf club, do coding, practice Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) and they also did art classes with the Mount Airy Arts Garage.

“So we’re looking forward to this summer because we are expanding our program,” she continued. “And we’re not only going to be serving seventh, eighth and ninth grade, we’re expanding down to six. We’re going to do rising sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth and my hope is to grow the program in the next couple of years and we’ll even go down to rising fifth-graders.”

For Jarius Ford, Breakthrough has been a game changer. His mother Shan Ford signed him up after receiving a recommendation from one of Jarius’ teachers and a referral from a good friend.

“I was excited about Jarius being accepted into the program because for him to have this opportunity because of the hard work that he has put in was wonderful,” Shan said. “ I was excited about the program. More excited than he was.”

Although Ford wasn’t too enthused to enroll in the program initially, he now doesn’t want to miss a session and encourages his peers to take advantage of the opportunity as well. His mother jokingly reminds him that he thought he was being punished with more work.

“When I first started out, it was like (ugh) more school,” Ford said. “But when I got there it was a lot of fun.”

“Say you were learning a math lesson, they would make it like a Bingo game and inside the Bingo game there are actually answers and equations,” Ford said. “Or like for vocab we’d do a word search. So with the vocabulary words that we learn we’d have to seek and find in a puzzle. ”

Ford has participated in the Breakthrough program for over two years. He has plans of becoming a baseball player.

“My original plan was to practice and become a baseball player,” Ford said. “But I want to be really good at sports, baseball, but also really smart and able to articulate my words like the athlete Chris Bosh.”

Ford said he believes that Breakthrough will help prepare him to achieve his future goals.

For Najah Spruill, Breakthrough put her on the trajectory for a successful career in education. The former Breakthrough student turned instructional coach, is now the dean of faculty.

“Breakthrough really helped me a lot and brought me out of my shell,” Spruill said. “It’s really a dual opportunity program because for those younger teachers, like when they’re teaching fellows, they’re experiencing the classroom and that’s something that you don’t really do until your last year of college.

“It’s good to get the opportunity to work with students and also for kids like myself, just showing them how to be a leader is definitely vital in society today,” she continued. “They really taught me how to have a voice, my teaching fellow. So it just came full circle, it’s like I never left at this point because I came back as an instructional coach over this past summer. Which was cool because I was basically monitoring the teaching fellows and teaching them some ways to make learning fun and have engagement even with the past year of COVID. That experience was cool. and then now being dean of faculty. It’s just like, I get to see what’s behind the curtains as dean.”

As the Breakthrough team gears up for the summer, Palmer said that they “just want kids who want to be here and want more out of their academic careers.”

“We’re always trying to make a breakthrough,” Palmer said. “We do a lot of cheers in the summer. We call them affirmations, you know, really just trying to build up our kids’ self confidence, and our program is free.”

The Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia also offers fall, winter and spring sessions on Saturdays.

“We try to make a difference in kids’ lives,” Palmer said.

Afea Tucker is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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