Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer

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Students joke around while talking about Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano at the program’s 10th anniversary celebration July 21. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Allison Jarrell

Anything is possible.

That’s the advice Raul Navarro would give a student who’s unsure about his or her academic future.

Navarro, a native of San Juan Capistrano, remembers being a seventh-grade student at Marco Forster Middle School when he first heard about Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano. The teachers presenting to his class explained that the program was for high-achieving students, and right away he knew he wanted to be one of them.

After Navarro applied and was accepted into the program in 2008, he spent three years as a Breakthrough student before becoming a junior teacher in 2012. Fast forward three more years, and Navarro is back teaching seventh grade science at Breakthrough. Only this time, he’s returning from his first year of studying marketing at the University of San Francisco.

While he enjoyed being a junior teacher in the program, Navarro said it was his eighth grade Breakthrough teacher, Lorena Martinez, who really inspired him to give back to the program that helped him to pursue a college education. Like Navarro, Martinez also grew up a low-income student—the first in her family to go to college—and today, she is the outgoing executive director of Breakthrough after serving in the position for about three years.

Raul Navarro, Breakthrough Teacher, University of San Francisco
Raul Navarro, Breakthrough Teacher, University of San Francisco

“That’s something I really want to do,” Navarro said of Martinez’ work. “I just really want to help my community.”

 Ten Years of Changing Lives

Students, teachers and community supporters of Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano celebrated the program’s 10th anniversary at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School on July 21. The Breakthrough Collaborative has 27 sites nationwide. San Juan is the only location in Southern California.

Breakthrough is geared toward low-income children who need additional academic support, Martinez said, in order to end a cycle of poverty in families and communities. In essence, the program is designed to increase academic opportunities for highly-motivated, underserved students while putting them on the path to college.

The program began with just 22 students and six teachers in San Juan, and has since grown to 20 teachers,  81 students in the summer—rising seventh, eighth and ninth-grade students—and 120 students during the school year from seventh to 12th grade. All of the middle school students come from Marco Forster, and many end up at Capistrano Valley High School, Dana Hills High School, San Juan Hills High School and some at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School.

Over the last 10 years, Martinez said Breakthrough has expanded to offer more high school services, including a tutoring program which began two years ago at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Juan Capistrano. They’ve also added once-a-month meetings with high school students to ensure they’re on the right track and thinking about college preparation throughout the year.

“It’s just hard when you don’t have parents who went to college and don’t know what the steps are like,” Martinez said. “I would say the majority of our students have parents who didn’t even go to high school in this country. So there’s a huge unfamiliarity with the college application process.”

Martinez said in the Capistrano Unified School District, about  20 percent of Latino, low-income students graduate with the requirements they need to apply to Cal State or UC schools.

“With all ethnicities, we find that kids come into high school and their grades go right down,” said longtime Breakthrough advocate and CUSD Trustee Gila Jones. “If that is happening for an average middle-class and upper-middle-class kid, what’s it like for the kid who has less academic support at home? Expansion into high school really makes a difference for them—that’s part of the lessons learned over 10 years.”

Lorena Martinez, Outgoing Executive Director
Lorena Martinez, Outgoing Executive Director

In the Breakthrough program, 94 percent of the class of 2015 is headed to college, and 94 percent of their students are the first in their family to attend college. Those numbers, Martinez said, are achieved with individualized attention, focused education and encouragement.

“These students need a lot of support,” Martinez said. “We’re able to start at a really young age here and build in that knowledge at a middle school level.”

A New Chapter for Breakthrough

Breakthrough’s 10th anniversary brought with it a bittersweet goodbye for Martinez, who begins a new journey next week in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s School Leadership Program.

Following her time as the program’s executive director, Martinez said she hopes to one day become a principal and begin incorporating Breakthrough’s work on a larger scale. Her hope is to combat the odds against low-income—a one in 10 chance of graduating from college.

“I was a low-income student myself and the first in my family to go to college,” Martinez said. “I knew that having that degree changed my life, so I strongly believe that education can change the lives of communities and families.”

Looking back at her time in Breakthrough, Martinez said she most enjoyed seeing her middle school students off to college.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Martinez says as she begins talking about Raul Navarro—about how he began as seventh-grader, already eager to learn.

“He’s a perfect example, after a great first year at the University of San Francisco…he’s an example of the ability for people to grow as leaders.”

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How to Get Involved

Over the last year, Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano has implemented a new website, an annual online report and quarterly newsletters.

Fundraising is done on a year-to-year basis—organizers have to raise roughly $180,000 every year to keep the program going. Executive Director Lorena Martinez said funding often comes from foundations, donors, grants and corporate sponsors. St. Margaret’s Episcopal School covers about 50 percent of the program’s operating and overhead costs—including facility use and transportation—so all donations go directly to the program.

To learn more about Breakthrough, call 949.661.0108 ext. 342, email breakthroughsjc@gmail.com or visit www.breakthroughsjc.org. You can also follow Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano on Facebook  or @BTSJC on Twitter.

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