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Helping students in Santa Fe break through to college

July 16, 2018 GMT

Luis Ornelas was holding court in his classroom. The sound of his gavel pounding against the table made the students jump.

“All rise!” he said. The half-dozen seventh-graders immediately stood at attention, as if they were about to be sworn in as jurors for a high-profile trial.

Instead, they were given instructions on how to prepare arguments regarding some of the issues and themes of an award-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Native American writer Sherman Alexie, who for years had close ties to the Institute of American Indian Arts. Alexie came under fire earlier this year after being accused of sexual misconduct.

But the case in Ornelas’ reading class centered on another issue: whether the relationship between two characters in the book was healthy or harmful.

The lesson came as part of Breakthrough Santa Fe, a summer program for middle school students and high students hosted by Santa Fe Preparatory School. The six-week intensive program, now in its 15th year, gives about 200 local students extra lessons in core courses, as well as college-preparation classes and a variety of electives, including journalism.

The goal, Breakthrough Director Allie Cooper said, is to improve achievement scores and graduation rates, boost students’ confidence and, ultimately, ensure the vast majority of participants go to college.

The program also offers an opportunity for more one-on-one tutoring, small class sizes and instructions from teachers ages 15-22 — which helps inspire a closer rapport between students and teachers than they would have in typical public school classroom, Cooper said.

“They understand how we are feeling,” said one seventh-grade girl in Ornelas’ class. “They understand when we’re confused, or when we look confused and are not saying that we are, and they’ll slow down and help us.”

The Santa Fe Prep-based program is one of 25 in the nation operating under the Breakthrough Collaborative. Students take part in lessons that are advanced by at least a year and offer interactive methods — such as Ornelas’ impromptu courtroom act — of learning the material.

The program is free for selected students and targets those attending public schools with a high number of low-income students. With an annual budget of about $350,000, Breakthrough is funded with private donations, foundation grants, and support from Santa Fe Prep and the city of Santa Fe Youth and Families Services Division, among other sources.

About 120 sixth-graders apply to the program every March, Cooper said. Fewer than 40 are accepted. Candidates must fill out applications, write essays, maintain A’s and B’s and get a recommendation from a teacher.

Participants are expected to commit to attending classes from late June to early August for six years.

Their ultimate goal is college, said Val Gonzalez, who will be entering the seventh grade at Mandela International Magnet School in August. She’s been in the Breakthrough program for only about two weeks and already she’s writing for its student-run newspaper, The Breaking Times.

“All the kids here are college-bound,” she said. “They’re trying to help us get into college, and that’s a good thing … and if I don’t succeed by going to college, I won’t succeed in life. I’ll end up working at McDonald’s.”

All but one of last year’s cohort of Breakthrough grads have plans to go to college, Cooper said. The exception was a student who moved away.

María Erives, a 2017 graduate of Monte del Sol Charter School and a rising sophomore at the University of Denver who now works for Breakthrough, entered the program in 2011 and stuck with it for the entire six years, becoming the first member of her family to attend college — something her mother told her she had to do in order to be successful.

She didn’t know what a college application looked like, how to fill it out, or how to make her way through all the financial aid forms, she said. But Breakthrough instructors took her through it step by step and offered her a community that she felt did not exist in her schools.

Now she’s back at Breakthrough, as both a planning intern and a journalism teacher. The environment, she said, “gives off the feeling that you have people behind you to help you, people who care for you and will be there for you every year, through middle school, high school and even college.”

On the web

• For more information on the Breakthrough Santa Fe program, visit www.breakthroughsantafe.org.