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For the Norfolk public school students who participated in Breakthrough 2021, the challenges they faced went beyond the in-depth academic work that is central to the program’s empowering educational approach. 

Throughout the four-week summer program, Breakthrough happened in online classrooms with technology enabling connections between the homes of college students, who served as teachers, and the middle school students in homes across the City of Norfolk. The learning journey was rewarding but grueling. Teachers struggled to build a rapport with students to galvanize their curiosity, even as students dealt with distractions and real duties, such as having to babysit, make meals, or walk the dog. 

“Getting the students excited about the virtual program was really hard, since nearly all of them had been virtual all year,” said Jennifer Rodgers ‘97, director of Breakthrough at NA. “Building the relationships that are essential for learning was more challenging to do virtually.” 

When students and teachers were able to meet in-person, for a Saturday “birding” expedition at Pleasure House Point, a night out at a Tides baseball game, followed by a final, celebratory day of learning on campus to conclude the program, their elation left them grasping for words. 

“Surreal,” said Juelz, a rising 10th grader, as he stood in the refectory. “Last summer, my heart was broken” when the Covid pandemic forced the cancellation of Breakthrough, he said. “Today feels surreal. It’s been a great ride.” 

The Breakthrough program, which started in San Francisco in the late 1970s and has now spread to sites across the country, requires middle school students to commit to three successive summers of intensive learning to turbo-charge success in high school, the launchpad for matriculation in four-year colleges. The free program is targeted toward public school students in under-served neighborhoods. The Norfolk Academy program has been operating for nearly three decades in cooperation with Norfolk public schools. 

College students, and a limited number of high school students, many of whom are interested in exploring teaching as a profession, serve as the program’s teachers; they begin the summer with one-week boot camp, getting down the basics of lesson-planning and classroom control. This year, two Norfolk Academy Upper School students were part of the NA Breakthrough teaching team: Kristen Tan ‘22 and Lila Rivera ‘23.  

The training week was also virtual, and it happened with immense support from NA’s Technology Team, as well as mentorship from longtime NA teachers: Valerie Thornton, second grade teacher; Chris Runzo, middle school math teacher; Sarah Goodson '99, Upper School biology teacher and assistant director of the Upper School; and Eric Acra, Upper School history teacher and assistant director of the Upper School. During that week, and throughout the summer, Breakthrough leadership sought to impress upon the teachers the importance of their work. 

“I wanted them to feel the weight of what we wanted to do and sign up for that,” said Reggie Cole, assistant director of Breakthrough at NA. “The overall goal of Breakthrough is to overcome educational inequity in the country.” 

The program’s success depends upon building the “BT family,” and teachers were rocked by the emotional impact of the entire program and the final in-person day.  

Ryan Moon, a rising junior at UCLA, spent the summer rising in the wee hours of the morning at his home in San Francisco to be prepped and ready to teach algebra by 9 a.m. on the East Coast. He often wondered how to build energy in a virtual classroom, where the natural zing of dialogue is restrained by the need to “mute” and “unmute” microphones, and students must be reminded to keep their video on.  

Yet he forged ahead, learning how to maintain eye contact and set up one-to-one meetings to provide extra encouragement. Then he masked up to board a plane and fly cross-country, just to attend the Tides game and teach in-person on that one, extraordinary final day.  

“The faces of the students when they saw me, it blew my mind,” Moon said. “The goal of the program is to change the trajectory for these students, and my coming out helps accomplish that goal.” 

Breakthrough continues offering educational support throughout the year with Super Saturday events. Rodgers, the director, said she hopes that those can be in-person events.  

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