Michelle Palmer was reading student applications when she realized Breakthrough of Philadelphia had to continue this summer in some fashion.
For 26 years, Breakthrough has offered a rigorous six-week academic summer program for high-performing rising 7th, 8th and 9th grade students. Its goal is to help participants get into the city’s best high schools and, ultimately, earn a college degree.
Students submit 10-page applications and provide reasons why they should be picked for the tuition-free program.
“I was reading through the applications and some of the essays the students wrote I was just blown away by,” said Palmer, Breakthrough’s director. “When you read stuff like that from the students, the kids, you can’t let them down.”
COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of many events and programs, but Breakthrough, housed at Germantown Friends School, is going virtual.
Breakthrough, previously called Summerbridge, is affiliated with a national network of 24 similar programs aimed at helping students in middle school.
“We find that middle school is such a crucial time in children’s lives that you really want to make sure that they’re engaged in school and keep their motivation for learning at that age,” Palmer said. “That’s why we focus on those years.”
Another part of the program’s mission is giving college students interested in education a crack at teaching. Breakthrough’s classrooms are led by teaching fellows, under the guidance of experienced educators.
Those who work for the nonprofit track the students and their families as they move through high school, and they aim to keep in touch with and support graduates as they enter college.
All 1,300 student alumni have graduated high school, and 87 percent of those who have participated in the Philadelphia program have enrolled in four-year colleges, according to statistics on Breakthrough’s website.
It’s not just a summer program, either. Students come for classes between 9 a.m. and noon every other Saturday from September to May.
Palmer said Breakthrough relies on fundraisers and donations. About a quarter of its funding comes from individual contributions.
In a normal year, students would travel five days a week to either GFS or the program’s other campus at Drexel University for classes and other activities from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“But now we’re going virtual, so we’re going to have to shorten everything, but the students and the parents are still really engaged,” Palmer said.
The middle schoolers will have two classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. They will also have an elective, which in previous years has included topics ranging from ballet to journalism.
On Wednesdays, Palmer said, the students will be able to have some time away from the screen. Each participant is being sent two books, including one for their own enjoyment, to read. They will also have an opportunity for 1-on-1 time with instructors.
Palmer said Breakthrough is working on bringing a movement or workout component to make sure the kids stay active, even if they have to social distance.
Making the online transition has been difficult, but Breakthrough is able to use Germantown Friends’ remote learning infrastructure.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Palmer said. “It’s a lot of different things that we have to think about that we’re not used to, but we’re chugging along.”
She said Breakthrough has held virtual meetings with parents of returning students to get suggestions and has also sent information about online learning to the teaching fellows.
Students in the program form bonds and even lifelong friendships, Palmer said, so staff are also developing ways to make sure they continue to interact.
“My son looks forward to being able to see other kids, even if it’s on the computer,” said Palmer, a mother of three. “We want to be able to keep that social connection for people.”
So far, 100 students have enrolled, including 40 kids new to the program, Palmer said. There’s still time to apply, and she estimated Breakthrough could fill 15 to 20 additional slots. Classes will start June 29 and continue through Aug. 7.
Under normal circumstances, the program draws mostly from Germantown and West Philadelphia, but, now that it’s online, students from all over the city have easier access.
“We’re just trying to make sure that the program has as many fun aspects that we can offer with it being virtually,” Palmer said. “Academic enrichment is our number one priority but also our priority is making sure the students enjoy this summer because it’s really been challenging for everybody.”