Since the 5th grade, I’ve dreamed of attending Columbia University in New York City. Fast forward today, I am a first-generation college graduate of Columbia, in part because I attended Breakthrough Public Schools, a charter school network based in Cleveland, Ohio.
Being a Breakthrough student since elementary school, I had always known that I was going to college and that it was possible, even though many students who look like me and come from similar backgrounds don’t typically make it to top universities, let alone leave my hometown of Cleveland. However, Breakthrough Public Schools made it clear my dream was possible and the environment encouraged me to put academics first and placed me on the right track toward college. One of the many things that make charter schools unique is their flexibility to take a non-traditional approach to academics and create additional support for their students. Breakthrough Public Schools is renowned for their college preparatory focus to help students break out of the poverty cycle. My middle school, Citizens Leadership Academy (CLA), is dedicated to their mission to prepare students “to succeed in rigorous college-prep high schools and then in college and the job market.” With the school’s emphasis on “Core Skill Building and Expeditionary Learning,” their curriculum is designed to prepare students to lead in academics and place them on the path of college graduation. This is significant given that 98% of the students they serve are Black, come from communities with a history of disenfranchisement, or are low-income. By placing students on a path toward college, Breakthrough is helping families build a more promising future.
At Breakthrough, it is never too soon to start thinking about your future. Classrooms were heavily decorated with our homeroom teacher’s alma matter and hallways were covered in top university flags, colors, and logos to remind us that college was the end goal. Weekly assemblies included pep rallies and presentations on higher education—we even chanted about “the knowledge [we had] to go to college” at each assembly. These embedded cultural elements that I was surrounded with every day, in conjunction with teachers who saw and reminded me of my potential, helped develop my belief that I could go to any college I wanted one day.
In addition to college prep, CLA seeks to prepare civically engaged leaders. We were exposed to activism and volunteered at organizations in our neighborhood which taught me the importance of making a difference in your community. Because of my incredible experience at Breakthrough, I continued to engage with the school community through the Alumni Leadership Council where we consulted the launch of a new support program for alumni called “Beyond Breakthrough.” Beyond Breakthrough helps alumni identify and pursue their dreams through a supportive network of partners and programming, and even connected me to an internship opportunity at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools!
Charter schools like Breakthrough understand the needs of the student population they are serving and the barriers they face and provide the resources necessary to break through them. Trust me, I would know.
Kayla Burns is a summer policy intern at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.