Can you tell us a bit about Breakthrough New York's (BTNY) history and your personal experience helping students on their path applying to and attending college?

BTNY started as a middle school program in Manhattan in 1999. As our students aged and grew, so did Breakthrough. We added new sites in Brooklyn and The Bronx. We added a high school program and, later, a college and career success program. This means we have a ten-year pipeline through which we support our students first to gain access to strong high schools, then throughout the college application process, and then throughout college itself.

My experience helping students with college application and success began when I was teaching at Manhattan's Beacon School. There, each teacher functions as an advisor to a small group of students beginning in the 9th grade; when I was at Beacon, I coached three groups of advisees through the college process. In addition, I was also an adjunct professor at CUNY through the College Now program, so I saw students attempting (sometimes succeeding, sometimes not) college-level work, with more challenging readings and fewer nightly homework assignments. After Beacon, I worked with two organizations (most recently the Student Diplomacy Corps) that promote thoughtful student travel as a way to (among other things) prepare students to go away to college and thrive amongst the unfamiliar.

In 2015, I began work as the College Bound Director at Chess in the Schools, a mentoring organization in Midtown Manhattan, where I worked directly with about 100 NYC public high school students, most of whom will be first-gen college students. About 10 weeks ago, I started at BTNY, where I oversee a team of three Coordinators and 18 near-peer Mentors, all of whom work to provide support for our mostly first-gen students to get ready to apply for (and then succeed in) college.

Why is it important for an organization like BTNY to support students from an inner city area?

Where do I start? I guess with the fact that the current system of public schools is not designed to support the kind of intensely personal process that a good college-readiness program requires. The ratios of educators to students alone (forced by budgetary realities) make this impossible and those ratios only get worse when we realize that most teachers aren't trained to discuss the college process from a point of view other than the process they themselves went through (perhaps in different states and perhaps decades before).

Into this fray enter first-generation students who are the most vulnerable to attrition from the college pipeline. They're unlikely to be able to access their family's collective wisdom about the college process and so are more dependent on wisdom and knowledge gained from the same professionals who are too busy to sit with them and explain the process, its pitfalls, and how to navigate them. This is where Breakthrough hopes to step in.

What advice would you give to students from an underserved area who have college aspirations?

Is it too obvious to start with “work hard at school and do your best to get good grades”? It's not everything, but students who can demonstrate to colleges that they know how to succeed at school hold a significant advantage in both the race to get into schools and to get their education at least partially paid for.

The next thing I counsel is that students try and find a knowledgeable adult to mentor them and talk through what hurdles are to come--that mentor might be a teacher or counselor at school, or a student might find one at a mentoring organization like the one where I work. I could go on and on, but I'll stop with one more. I'm a big fan of breaking down big tasks and/or goals into much smaller, more manageable bits and pieces and the college process is tailor-made for this approach. Once someone understands all the steps involved, if she just makes a schedule and keeps to it, the goal becomes much more achievable.

How does the college application process change if you are a student from an underserved urban community?

It changes in a number of ways. First, the student should be aware that they should allow extra time to complete tasks because it's less likely that they'll be able to mobilize resources in case things go wrong close to a deadline. Students should also make sure they're aware of ways to cut the costs of applying to college so they don't spend any more than they have to.

Examples of money-savers are application fee waivers available from colleges and from the Common Application, fly-in programs to go visit colleges at the institution's expense, and free standardized tests. If students don't know about these in time to take advantage of them, the college process becomes hugely expensive. It doesn't have to be with a little bit of work and good timing.

Do a large percentage of the communities BTNY works in attend college? In what ways does this impact the views and perceptions of a student attending college? What are some ways BTNY works with the community to increase knowledge of postsecondary education options?

In 2012, about 45% of public school graduates immediately enrolled in college for the following semester (up from 35% just 10 years prior). Attending college alone shouldn't be viewed as the goal, however: if we look at four-year graduation rates for NYC public school students, rates dip down to 36% of those who enrolled, or only about 16% of the NYC public school population. Those numbers go down once we factor in that BTNY students are about 90% likely to be the first in their family to attend college.

Because it's considered out-of-the-ordinary for students from the 'average BTNY background' (if there can be said to be such a thing) to attend college and gain a degree, there are a number of trends that we see. Of course, there is pride at the achievement of gaining acceptance and matriculation. But there is also a lack of understanding of exactly what challenges lay ahead and how best to meet them; much of our work with students focuses on getting them accustomed to being in spaces that feel foreign and navigating them successfully. This might be a professor's office for office hours or the financial aid office; it might be in the dorm, comparing ideas with students who come from positions of significant privilege.

The notion of “grit” (or whatever term one prefers to indicate the sustained determination that one belongs in the academic space and will take on the challenges in order to succeed) is not unique to BTNY, but we realize that our students need tools to persist in the face of the obstacles they'll meet in college. We believe we've been successful: our first class of 10-year pipeline graduates are due to finish in the spring and 77% of them will have graduated with a degree in four years. The remaining students are on track to finish their degree in another two years.

At Breakthrough, we embrace the “each one teach one” model of education with the hope that as much as we teach our students, they carry that knowledge out into their families and wider communities. Because we ask our students to be peer leaders and mentors to each other, we hope that we're training them in communications technique and willingness to speak when they have knowledge to share. Certainly, we're arming students with knowledge about the college process, including financial aid options and common pitfalls and challenges, that we feel their broader community would benefit from knowing.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family or others in their community has not historically had experience with a college education?

Interesting question. I think one of the keys is to start by bringing the topic up as early as possible so family can get used to the idea and have a chance to think through possible objections. Once those objections are made explicit, the student can think through how to respond to them--college is too expensive? There's financial aid. I'm needed at home to help around the house? Maybe a part-time degree program is the right choice.

If students are stumped for answers, they can approach a teacher, counselor, or mentor for help. Bringing up the idea of college early also lets parents begin making preparations by making sure paperwork (taxes, birth certificates, etc.) is available to speed the application and financial aid processes along.

What are some positive ways you see high schools in urban areas supporting students who want to apply to college? What is one thing you would like to see them adopt?

There's some really good work being done out there and it's being done in lots of different ways, which is encouraging if you believe there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to education. There are some schools doing fantastic work getting students pre-professional skills, like Cristo Rey, which has their students in internships one day of the week.

Beacon, where I used to work, is so writing-intensive that students often return from their first year of college saying that they find they're writing at a par with students one or two years above them. In terms of supporting the actual application process, though, I haven't seen much creative thought. This doesn't mean it's not happening--it likely is--I just haven't seen it yet. The best idea I've seen in practice involves an earlier start to the college conversation and trying to confound the shackles that come with the huge numbers of students assigned to each college advisor. Several good schools use an advisory system to do this with mixed results.

One thing I'd love to see public schools here in NYC doing more is encouraging students to reach outside their comfort zone when applying to college. I'm a big supporter of the CUNY system here in NYC and the SUNY system as well, but students often get more generous financial support from private institutions and often the quality of the teaching and advising (to say nothing of their student retention and graduation rates) are better at those institutions. Encouraging students to reach a little further afield when it comes to applying to college, to not be put off by the high sticker price (but be savvy about applying for financial aid) through encouraging advisors would be a great step.

How can colleges and universities better serve inner-city students?

Wow--This could be a book-long answer. Some of it is little stuff: accepting self-reported scores on standardized testing cuts down on the cost burden; some schools are starting to do this. Setting up, or expanding, fly-in programs for students from inner cities to get to a college campus and see what it's like to attend. Virtually every fly-in program I know of is for first semester seniors, though; if colleges could do that for 9th and 10th graders, they might find that they change the trajectories early enough to encourage students who wouldn't otherwise go to college at all because the idea seems so foreign.

Cornell University, among many others, have pre-college programs for high school students and they've made scholarships available for rising juniors to attend a few weeks of college-level classes and this was a HUGE hit with the students I know who attended. More of that would be great. Finally, I consistently hear students tell me that they are concerned about going to schools where they stick out because almost all their classmates are white; beginning or expanding programs that carve out spaces (be they virtual, emotional, or physical) for students of color on predominantly white campuses so that they have a respite or home would go a long way towards improving some students' feelings of belonging on college campuses.

What role does mentorship play in helping better serve inner-city students?

It's hard to overemphasize the importance of having someone to use as a sounding board for ideas, questions, fears, and experiences. Too often, a non-college educated parent faced with news of a single failing grade on a test or quiz has the reaction of 'come home', whereas a mentor who's been through the college experience will more likely take a problem solving approach specific to the college milieu. Our use of mentors certainly doesn't seek to replace parental advice, but we do seek to bolster it with knowledge that our parents typically don't possess.

Where would you suggest students from an underserved area who may not have access to an organization like BTNY turn for help?

The two sources of information I'd recommend everyone consult are school counselors and the internet. Our students come to us because school counselors know us and the work we do and they tell motivated families what we offer and why they should consider trusting us with their child. It's hard to beat that kind of expertise, especially since good counselors act as matchmakers: there are lots of mentoring organizations out there and a good counselor will be able to differentiate which one(s) might be a good fit for a particular student or family. If there's no knowledgeable counselor available, I'd hit the internet and try some keywords, like “high school mentoring Vermont (or whatever city/state you're in).

Obviously, this technique doesn't come with pre-knowledge that the organization is what it advertises itself to be and/or is good at what it does, so some additional questions would be in order to make sure it's a good match for the student.

Are there any issues that the students you advise commonly experience once they start school? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

One issue shared by our students, which is typical for most college freshmen, is adjusting to the 'pace' of college. From the wealth of opportunities for campus involvement to the competing demands of individual classes, time management skills and an organization system become keys to success for our students.

Unlike some of their peers on-campus, the majority of our students need to work part-time for additional financial support, and that can become a time commitment that prevents the flexibility and freedom that other students on-campus have. So we spend additional time helping our students prioritize their commitments and personal interests, emphasizing the importance of balance and self-care. Self-care is an important focus of ours to ensure the wellbeing of our students.

Why does your organization find it important to commit to support students from middle school through college? What is the long-term impact of this commitment for students?

The 10-year pipeline was designed to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. In New York City, there is a huge number of public high schools. The vast majority of these schools don't adequately prepare their students for competitive colleges, but families aren't necessarily aware of that when they go through NYC's competitive high school admissions process. What we find, then, is that students are often on a path starting as early as 7th grade and that this path either leads them closer to, or further away from, getting into and succeeding at college.

Working with students beginning as early as we do gives us the ability to help inform families of their choices, the likely outcomes of those choices, and how to get into the best fit high school. We do similar work (this time for colleges) with our high school students in 11th and 12th grade, but even before that, we give them access to social emotional education, professional skills, and opportunities that will allow them to play on a more even playing field with their perceived competitors.

Many of these competitors are attending top-flight private schools and have economic and social resources to bring to bear when seeking out compelling summer and vacation activities like those that can make a difference on a college or job application. We also reintroduce our students to discussions about what the college experience will be like to get them, and their parents, used to the idea of studying at competitive colleges, many of which will be alongside an overwhelming white and economically privileged majority. The college support piece is relatively new for us and comes as the logical conclusion of our 10-year pipeline. If our mission is not just to see our students well educated and unburdened by crushing debt, but rather to increase their economic mobility, then we need to do what we can to support their career prospects, too.

We know that the first half of this mission has been successful--all of our first cohort is in line to graduate within 6 years, and more than 75% will graduate within 4 years. So, much of our newest program is devoted not just to college success, but career success as well. We haven't yet seen the impact of this part of the program--it's that new--but our hope is to break the cycle of poverty among our families.

Geoff Hunt

High School Director, Breakthrough New York

Geoff Hunt grew up in a small town north of Boston. After attending Skidmore College where he double-majored in government and history, Geoff spent seven years working various jobs in the book publishing industry. While studying for his master's degree in education at Teacher's College, Geoff student-taught at The Beacon School, where he wound up teaching in the social studies department until 2008. In 2009, Geoff began working for The Experiment in International Living, a non-profit study abroad organization and then at The Brattleboro Retreat, working with emerging adults struggling with addiction and mental health issues. In the interim, he consulted with the founders of The Student Diplomacy Corps, an organization devoted to providing travel experience to disadvantaged and deserving high school students. In 2015, Geoff started work as Chess in the Schools' College Bound Director and in August of this year, Geoff joined Breakthrough New York as the High School Director.