Summer in the City

They hailed from some of the most prestigious colleges across thecountry – Columbia, Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Harvard and Yale – but these stellar collegiates found themselves back in school this summer.

These college students were selected for the increasingly coveted internship with Breakthrough New York. Selected from among 650 applicants, these 40 teacher interns spent six weeks teaching high-achieving middle-school students.

“Every time someone asks me about my summer I tell them it was the best summer of my life,” says Reginald Hutchins, a 20-year-old junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

As a middle school student himself, Hutchins participated in the Breakthrough program in his hometown of Atlanta. Last summer, he interned in New York City’s Breakthrough program, an experience that prompted him to return again this year.

This summer proved to be an intensive, exhilarating triumph of hard work, diligence and persistence. Before entering the classroom, teacher interns undergo several weeks of instruction.

“We went through these really long training modules. It’s all theory, what may happen, what might happen. Stepping into the classroom was rough because it was like 17 children staring at you expecting you to teach them something,” he said.

He immediately overcame any initial jitters, as he and a fellow teacher intern he was paired with broke down lessons into manageable tasks, and worked individually with students, which he said were enthusiastically proactive.

“The Breakthrough community is like no other community. We have this thing where we say that after you leave Breakthrough you go through withdrawal,” he said. “It’s an unparalleled experience.”

One that already has changed the course of his life and career.  As the program concluded, he received Breakthrough’s Maureen Yusuf-Morales Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes one Intern at each site whose performance as an instructor and role model excelled beyond expectations.

And, shortly after returning to Atlanta after his first summer internship in New York Hutchins changed his major to sociology, and then this year he switched his minor to educational studies.

“Everyone in the Breakthrough community is really invested not only in the students but in us, so that we can become the best teachers that we can,” he said. “The Breakthrough community is really invested not only in the students but in us, so that we can become the best teachers that we can.”

While Hutchins received the award for his work at the Manhattan site, the award in Brooklyn went to Johnneca Johnson, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Cincinnati.

Johnson is majoring in early childhood education. This wasn’t her original choice of a major. She had performed internships in the legal and medical fields. But they never seemed to click.

She then interned with Breakthrough New York in Cincinnati in 2010, drawn to it because she, too, had been a Breakthrough student in her home city. Like her intern colleague Hutchins, she was drawn to the Big Apple this summer.

“My first day in the classroom, I went over the rules with my students and got to know them,” she said. “They made me feel very comfortable, and after that it was all uphill from there.”

Breakthrough students are high-achieving, but often economic and geographic odds force them into lower performing classrooms in the city, leading their families to turn to Breakthrough for support in continuing on a high-achieving path that leads to a selective four-year college.

Johnson witnessed the drive that many of these students harbor from that first day in class. This was matched by the devotion of her fellow teacher interns, and the staff, she said. “I feel like I have 30 new best friends,” she said of the teacher interns.

“I chose New York City because I heard they were a well-oiled machine and were leading all of the other Breakthrough sites,” she said. “I have never met a more motivated and passionate staff. They really want the teachers to be the best of the best. They want the whole program to succeed. It was a great experience to know that the people above me were working 10 times as hard as I am.”

Her experience is already paying off. She has now been accepted into the Teach for America program in Jacksonville, Florida. Her ultimate goal is to return to New York City, and Brooklyn specifically.

“I really want to come back to Breakthrough New York and help,” she said. “The connections we built with students and teachers and staff will last forever. It’s going to be a lifetime relationship.”

A healthy number of teacher interns are former Breakthrough students. Timothy Garcia is another example of Breakthrough’s impact. He was a Breakthrough New York student, enrolled because he wanted an extra push to “take charge” of his academic success.

Now a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, he interned last summer, and returned to the classroom this one. He sought those opportunities because of a classroom exercise he took part in as a Breakthrough student, when he was instructed to deliver a 10-minute presentation on a subject.

“I really just wanted to be on the other side of the classroom,” he said. “It’s been amazing. They challenge you in every single way. The Breakthrough program teaches you how to be a professional, how to work on a team, how to deal with stress.”

The opportunity similarly imparted lessons on the struggle that many teachers face in meeting the needs of a diverse group of students, and equally attending to all. “You appreciate how much work that teachers are doing, how much work it takes to put the program together,” he said. “You are preparing lesson plans, organizing special events. I definitely learned about sustainability.”

Garcia taught 9th grade literature to students that were poised to enter the 9th grade, working with two groups of 14 students each. Each day, he made sure to consider each individual student’s needs and progress. “You need to make sure you don’t burn out being able to give every student an equal amount of attention and that no student is left out,” he said. “You must be able to reach everyone.”

In the end, he said, Breakthrough New York not only shapes the lives of their middle school charges but of his colleagues. It changes career trajectories, and mindsets as well.

“Going through the Breakthrough summer you definitely learn about yourself, how you work with others, how you feel when tested and when you face adversity,” Garcia said. “You learn that not everything is easy. Sometimes you fail, and that in itself makes you stronger. It’s a very challenging summer, and you grow as a person.”