Breakthrough Saint Paul: A college prep program for low-income kids with high success


Maybe Nouchie Xiong’s experience in becoming a teacher with Breakthrough Saint Paul tells this story best.

Xiong, an American woman of Hmong heritage, was headed toward her second year at the then College of St. Catherine, an education major looking for a summer job, when she heard of Breakthrough Saint Paul, an academic enrichment program aimed at helping high potential, low-income middle school and high school students on the path toward college. Most are students of color. The program aims, as well, to cultivate teachers.

We tell this story as Breakthrough St. Paul, a six-year college preparatory program, this spring graduates its first class of 11. All are going on to college, no small feat considering wide academic achievement gaps between white kids and students of color.

Each student, according to local executive director Emily Wingfield, has earned scholarship help, averaging $26,000, with, at last report, at least three students offered full scholarships (to Stanford, Carleton and the University of St.Thomas). The St. Paul effort is the only Breakthrough in Minnesota, though it is part of the national Breakthrough Collaborative.

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Locally, the program includes six weeks of summer school as well as Saturday tutoring during the school year in a special collaboration between Saint Paul Public Schools and Mounds Park Academy. St. Paul provides the students and Mounds Park the facilities for classes. Teachers, including many education majors, are college students supervised by licensed teaching staff.
But back to Nouchie, 24, who faced stiff competition to become a teacher at Breakthrough Saint Paul’s summer school a few years back. She and other applicants had been asked to come prepared to teach a lesson. She watched, impressed as one applicant taught how to properly swing a baseball bat and another how to make tissue paper flowers, and thought her lesson on origami would fall short.

“The last minute I switched it,” Nouchie says, to a lesson in improvisation. She coached her fellow applicants on how to “act like a dog,” and “fry like you’re bacon.”

“We can’t just be regular teachers,” she recalls saying. “We have to be kids ourselves.” Her creativity and flexible response to the application situation — like any teacher in a classroom full of students — won her a teaching position.

Dynamic approach

That’s the kind of dynamic, adaptable educational approach that makes Breakthrough a success, Wingfield says.

Just ask two very successful examples of the first graduating class.
Vietnamese-American Tho Bui, 19, is praises the program: “A lot of times, minority kids and kids of color don’t really have the expectation of going to college. Breakthrough’s message is: ‘You are going to college. You can do it. This is how you do it.”’

Tho, who started his education in Saint Paul Public Schools and transferred to Mounds Park Academy after receiving financial support, is headed off to Carleton College in Northfield, thanks to a scholarship award from Carleton and financial help from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The middle child in a family of five children, he came here at age 10 with his parents to live in Frogtown, one of St. Paul’s poorest neighborhoods. He dreams of earning a PhD in neuroscience.

Pai Lee, 18, a Hmong woman who immigrated to the United States as a baby, is graduating from Johnson High School in St. Paul this spring. She’s headed to St. Catherine University on full scholarship to study nursing. She made the decision to attend St. Catherine after being flown to both East and West coasts to be wooed by other colleges.

The oldest of 10 children, she is the first generation in her family to go to college, a feat she gives Breakthrough part credit for. “It’s really hard for a first generation kid to go to college,” Pai says, explaining that her dad works in a factory and her mom is a homemaker.

Breakthrough, she says, “is the best summer school ever” because of its summer-camp like atmosphere (one year there was a Super Heroes theme) with cheers and skits and the enthusiastic attitude of teachers as well as the high academic expectations for students. “They helped me a lot, especially with writing,” Pai says.

Those summer school days included word and math problems of the day and composition lessons, as well as two hours of homework and lots of discussion about when, not if, students go to college.

Memorable moments

And there are memorable teaching and learning moments, Nouchie says, such as when her students read “If You Come Softly” by Jacqueline Woodson, a book on race and youth. The book created educational and emotional connections related to their lives, Nouchie says and stimulated frank conversation.

“Breakthrough amplifies what you are, to be yourself and to love that,” Tho told me. “You become a different person…a better person.”    

Competition for limited spots in the program is keen, Wingfield says, with too many having to be turned away. For the last three years they’ve enrolled 60 students per cohort.

Applicants must qualify in at least two of the following categories: living in poverty, first generation in their family to attend college, coming from a home where English is not the primary language, and/or be from a racial or ethnic group underrepresented in American colleges.

One last thing, as for Nouchie, she’s been employed in admissions at Hamline University, but plans a return to school for graduate work.

This article is made possible in part by the Don W. Taylor Fund of  The Minneapolis Foundation.