abenaosei.jpgSydney Cameron, 12, has dreams of attending college one day. On a recent Saturday morning, the seventh-grader got a head start on her future while attending a series of teen workshops at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale.

“I came here to learn about how to make good choices,’’ said Cameron, who attends William Dandy Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. 

Cameron was one of about 200 students who attended the 2008 Youth Summit hosted by the Urban League of Broward County’s Young Professionals’ Network and Breakthrough Fort Lauderdale.

Breakthrough Fort Lauderdale is a summer and school-year enrichment program for underserved middle school students hosted and underwritten by Pine Crest School.

The idea for the Youth Summit was started by Abena Osei, a Pine Crest employee who was recently named executive director of Breakthrough Fort Lauderdale. In her spare time, she also chairs the Education and Youth Empowerment Committee of the Young Professionals’ Network. 

Through her work and volunteer efforts, Osei, 29, said she is trying to uncover the next generation of “change agents.’’

“I want to instill this tiny idea in the mind of a child that, ‘I can transcend my community. I can make choices for myself and my family. I have access to whatever is out there,’’’ said Osei, an Oakland Park resident.

She said she loves to hear students talk about their goals in the present tense.

“The biggest reward is to have a student who says, ‘I am the first person in my family to go to college,’’’ she said. “They are claiming it. They are owning it. It’s part of the language that they speak.’’

For the summit, Osei brought together local community leaders to host various interactive lessons designed to help kids deal with the challenges they face in their community. Topics of the sessions included “Knowing Your Self Worth,’’ “College 101’’ and “Selecting Your Career Path.’’

In her session titled, “They're Always Watching You,’’ Karla Dejean, Pine Crest School’s director of diversity, spoke about the importance of entering the room with confidence, making eye contact, and using proper grammar.

Dejean reminded students that potential employers and school recruiters are looking for specific qualities that set apart the best candidates from the rest.

When the students first entered the room, Dejean handed out blank business cards to them, and asked them to write down their future job titles. Then she held mock interviews with two of the teens who were competing for a camp counselor job. Students had to critique the two job prospects on their body language, interview responses and appearance.

After the class, Jessica Waite, a seventh-grader at William Dandy Middle, said she never realized that her grammar, manners and eye contact could have such a big impact on her future.

“I’m really learning new things,’’ the 13-year-old said. “I learned that people are always watching you.’’

In another classroom, Joel Smith, middle school director for Broward County Public Schools, led a discussion titled “Surviving the World of Middle School.’’

While speaking to the students, he slipped in words like cornucopia, libations and serendipity. Smith was using the fancy words in order to stress the importance of having a strong vocabulary. He said three qualities that people need to be successful in the future are problem solving, the ability to work well with others and technological savvy.

“It’s three things for the future that will make a difference,’’ he said. “It’s not math and it’s not science. And in order to think and problem solve, you must know the words. People’s brains together are what’s going to make the next wave of  X-boxes, things that we don't even know exist.’’

As Pine Crest's new Breakthough executive director, Osei will oversee the program that recruits 40 students from local middle schools to attend a rigorous, six-week summer program at Pine Crest prior to their seventh and eighth-grade years of school.

The students then attend weekday and Saturday tutoring sessions during the school year. After that, Breakthrough students are provided mentors to help them with SAT and scholarship preparation until the students successfully transition into college. The summer classes are taught by high school and college students striving for careers in education.

The program serves Margate, William Dandy, Sunrise and Rickards Middle schools.

When she recruits students to enter the program, Osei said she’s not looking for perfect grades. Some key qualities for potential Breakthrough students include good behavior, maturity and students in need of tutoring. Many of the students also come from single-parent families and receive free or reduced-price lunches.

“The students have to be motivated,’’ she said. “We want students who are going to be committed to being a part of Breakthrough for the next six years. Education truly is the pathway to eradicating generational poverty and we want to be that conduit.’’

Also impacted by the program are the college students who lead the program as teachers during the summer, many of whom come from elite colleges like Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton.

“They come to work with our students for a summer and realize these students are just as deserving of what the world has to offer,’’ Osei said. “We have a whole segment of people underserved. It’s a cross-cultural program. They go back to their colleges and raise awareness. Then they graduate and go into education. That's the transformative power of the program.’’

For more information about Breakthrough Fort Lauderdale, please log onto www.breakthroughcollaborative.org , www.pinecrest.edu/-breakthrough, or contact Abena Osei at abena.osei@pinecrest.edu or 954-776-2179.


Photo by Khary Bruyning. Abena Osei