For three decades, Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy has served generations of middle school students from Norfolk Public Schools, improving their preparation for high school and, as a result, potentially changing the trajectory of their lives.
The premise of the free program is straightforward: Give motivated students, many of whom are from lower socio-economic households and under-resourced schools, intensive academic instruction for three sequential summers, and they will enter high school with the knowledge, skills, and drive to propel them to four-year colleges. Their teachers — high school and college students with an interest in becoming educators — learn the ropes with support from an intensive teacher prep “boot camp” and mentoring from NA faculty.
Last summer, Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy started opening its doors wider, offering its distinctive program to students from all five cities of South Hampton Roads, rather than restricting recruitment to students from Norfolk. In previous summers, program directors had traveled to elementary schools in Norfolk, making their pitch to teachers and fifth graders; the approach relied on students having enough enthusiasm to bring the material home to show parents and request the chance to apply. However, Covid restrictions severely curtailed the directors’ ability to make those visits.
So, Reggie Cole and Jennifer Rodgers ’97, two Norfolk Academy teachers who have led the program, decided on a new approach, one designed to reach students throughout South Hampton Roads and target parents directly. They collaborated with NA’s Communications Office to launch the program’s first advertising campaign, entirely through digital and social media, and they created an online application to help eliminate some hurdles in the process.
Although the campaign was a pilot project with a small budget, it was incredibly successful in its goals.
“Yes, we did get more students whose parents said, ‘You’re going to this program for the summer,’” said Cole, who took the helm as executive director of Breakthrough this year, as Rodgers wrapped up five years in that role. “That brought a different dynamic than we had when we were recruiting only by going into the schools and making presentations.”
Even as the program widened its geographic range, it did not lose focus on providing the opportunity for students who most need it, Rodgers said.
“We are giving students from lower socio-economic backgrounds priority. It is for students and families who would not be able to pay for five weeks of academic enrichment if not for a free program.”
Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy is an affiliate of the national non-profit Breakthrough Collaborative, of which there are 24 affiliated sites across the United States. The NA program benefits from that affiliation, largely through the national network to recruit teachers, but funding for the program comes from donors to the school.
Last summer was the first time Breakthrough at NA had returned to in-person learning after a pandemic-imposed hiatus. In summer 2020, the program could not operate, and it was nearly entirely remote in 2021, except for a few field trips and one on-campus day for graduation.
The students who came to the program last year, some for the first time and others to finish the three-summer sequence, showed the impact that Covid had wrought on public school programs, whether from months or even a full academic year learning online and staying home, or from the social challenges of masking and distancing in class.
“These students have real resilience,” Cole observed.
The academic gaps were particularly noticeable in math, Cole and Rodgers said, so they offered more levels to target students’ learning needs. In addition, all Breakthrough classes are unusually small — the maximum size is about eight students — so teachers can spend time with each student to address academic strengths and weaknesses and to build nurturing bonds.
“The most important part of Breakthrough is the relationships that teachers and students build,” Rodgers said. “That is what inspires them. They want to be like these young teachers.”
Cole noted the diversity of the teaching staff, which has been increasing, a satisfying and important achievement.
“We should be putting teachers in front of students that look like them,” he said. “Studies have established that as an important factor in student success and in building aspirations for college.”
Many Breakthrough students appreciate the program’s impact and seek to give back to it, often by becoming teachers for a summer. Corey Brooks ’22, who entered NA in ninth grade after three years in the NA Breakthrough Program, is one of them. Brooks, who is attending the University of Pennsylvania, spoke at last year's graduation ceremony in June about the way that Breakthrough transformed his once-negative thoughts about school and instilled values like “respect, dedication, and achievement…the cornerstones of personal development.”
Brooks said he returned as a teacher “to promote the same values instilled in me by this very community. Seeing students witness the same situations I did was therapeutic yet uplifting. The next generation is better and brighter. I am overjoyed to have the chance to educate the people standing in front of me.”
This article is an update from one that appeared in the fall 2022 Academy Magazine. On Saturday, March 18, Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy will host an event for all students and families interested in joining the program this summer. The event begins on campus at 9 a.m.