cordella-jane-ingram-noel_web.jpgMIAMI — Alonte Johnson is a Morehouse man. His entry into the prestigious all-male institution is thanks, in part, to his participation as a youth in the very program at which he now teaches.

Johnson, a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, is also a summer teacher intern at Breakthrough Miami’s Ransom Everglades campus in Coconut Grove.

Johnson was a student in the Breakthrough program from sixth through eighth grades while growing up in Texas.

The philosophy for the program is the same nationwide: Discover the hidden promise in students who may not otherwise attend academically rich high schools and colleges, and use proven techniques to “break through” whatever barriers exist in their lives.

It continues to have an impact on young people like 11-year-old Cordella-Jane Ingram-Noel.

The soft-spoken beauty with a head full of gorgeous dreadlocks said the Breakthrough program has improved her math skills tremendously.  Her participation in Breakthrough also helped her get into the all-girl Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart.

“I love it,’’ said Ingram-Noel, who will be in the sixth grade at the prestigious school this fall.  “Everyone is great here.  The teachers really care, and we learn a lot.’’

The 18-year-old Breakthrough Miami program is housed at three sites. In addition to the Ransom campus, the other two are at the Carrollton School, also in Coconut Grove, and the Doctors Charter School on Barry University’s Miami Shores campus.

The local program is modeled after the original Summerbridge Program at University High School in San Francisco, which was established in 1978.  Breakthrough Miami was founded in 1991 with 40 students by John Flickinger and his good friend, Doug Weiser, both 1974 graduates of Ransom Everglades.

Flickinger, the program’s first executive director, now serves as a consultant to the organization, which receives some of its funding from The Children’s Trust, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ransom Everglades, and a host of private citizens.

Of the 35 affiliates across the country, the Miami program has the distinction of being the first to utilize a cluster model strategy, drawing students from an area stretching from North Miami-Dade to the Homestead area. The students come from those areas to the program’s three campuses.

The Miami program’s nearest Breakthrough neighbor is in Fort Lauderdale, at Pine Crest School, with other sites in Atlanta; Cincinnati, Oh.; Cambridge Mass.; Washington, D.C. and even Hong Kong.

As part of the Knight Foundation $3.25 million grant award in 2007, Breakthrough Miami will increase the number of students served from 300 to more than 1,100 by 2012, and will open five additional sites.

Webber Charles took the South Florida Times on a recent tour of the Ransom campus to provide a small taste of what the Breakthrough experience is like.  As Charles guided the tour, Breakthrough students periodically approached a reporter to introduce themselves and offer a warm welcome. The practice of approaching visitors with a firm handshake and eye contact is one of many taught to the students in an effort to help improve their social skills.

Charles, a former art teacher and award-winning chess coach at Edison Park elementary in Little Haiti, joined Breakthrough Miami as a mentor teacher at its Doctors campus last summer. Impressed with his effectiveness, program directors offered him a position as assistant site director at the Ransom campus.

“It’s great that I was a mentor teacher before because it really gave me a good perspective on what the program was about. Coming in a leadership level, I really know how it can change lives on an intrinsic level,” Charles said.

Charles, who is Haitian-American, said the admission process is competitive, and culminates with a diverse mix of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the majority of the program’s students are from low-income communities, he said, 25 percent are from high-income families.

The rigorous, six-week summer institute provides instruction in Math, English, Science, FLEX (Social Studies and foreign language combo) two hours of homework each night and two novels. To maintain its connection to the students year round, the program takes on an advocacy role to ensure that the youth are placed in academically rich classes and – if necessary – academically rich schools. Approximately 14 Saturday sessions are provided throughout the school year to help reinforce the progress the students gain in the summer program.

Janessa Jordan is a teacher intern in the program from Colorado. The University of Colorado philosophy and English major is spending a second summer with Breakthrough Miami after becoming hooked on its ability to transform students’ lives. 

“Last year, I was able to see so many of my students grow. To be able to recognize the jewels that live inside of them. I wanted to continue to see how the students excelled,” she said.

Sounding far more mature than her 21 years, Jordan said she is most impressed with Breakthrough’s ability to “equalize the playing field for a lot of our students.”

Ariel Edwards is Jordan’s mentor teacher. She was recruited by Charles from Edison Middle school. Her ability to build strong relationships with her Breakthrough students has greatly impacted her teaching style – a program priority.

“Here, I only teach six kids and I have not had an experience like that ever. The most I’ve ever had is 32 and the least 15. I think you’re able to build relationships with all of your kids no matter what,” she said.

Despite Breakthrough’s small teacher-student ratio, Edwards said the experience has shown her the importance of strong connections with students and their families.

“I do want to go back and have that same philosophy of building a relationship with my students and their parents,” said the 26 year-old, who heads the Language Arts department at Edison Middle.

The favorite part of the day, according to this publication’s informal survey, is the daily all-school meeting, or ASM, as it’s called by the students and teachers. The ASM is 30 minutes of high-energy instruction, confidence bolstering and team building. In addition to learning a new word and math equations each day, the students learn about a different college, put on skits and other artistic performances, and cheer each other on.

Although also a big fan of the ASM, Jordan’s face lit up when asked to share her favorite part of her job.

“Oh my gosh, it sounds really cliché, but I love my students. They continually surprise me and amaze me everyday,’’ she said. “A lot of times, they’re just so self-motivated, they just want to excel. My job is to push them to excel at a higher level than they thought they could before.”

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Photo by Khary Bruyning. Cordella-Jane Ingram-Noel