All posts by Lily Panish

BTSJC student is a Summer Scholar

This summer we sent Ivan Santana to attend UCI’s Summer Scholar Program. In this program, high school students take one UCI course with college students and are supported by both mentors and fellow Summer Scholars. Breakthrough SJC staff chose Ivan, a rising junior, to participate in the program after assessing his academic progress and potential to benefit from the opportunity. After the staff selected Ivan, he also had to submit an application, grades, essays, and a letter of recommendation.

After Ivan finishes “The Biology of Human Diseases” course and his grades are submitted, the class will count towards his college credits when he eventually attends a four-year university. Ivan has learned a lot taking a college course and learning about college life, saying, “I had a soul searching moment when I went to the seminars. You go into college thinking you know what you want to do, but you might end up majoring in something completely different. In college you have access to so many resources and so much knowledge and you should really take advantage of it.”

Ivan says he feels more prepared to apply to and attend college after being a part of the Summer Scholars program, explaining, “UCI had the admissions president come and speak to us and he told us the important things to have on your application. He was telling us how to get into UCI but I could apply it to any UC I’d want to go to.” Thank you UCI for giving Ivan the opportunity to attend the Summer Scholars Program!

8th graders excel in annual egg drop competition

Engineers from Fluor Corporation visited Breakthrough SJC for our second annual egg drop competition. Students had to follow strict guidelines and make sure their crafts were lightweight and creative. Fluor engineers also followed these guidelines with their own competition entry!

Before the competition, engineer Felipe Delgado taught students about the different types of engineering. He encouraged a passion for learning, saying, “We are hoping to encourage you to feel that passion to work in a team and solve problems and come up with solutions. That is why we’re here today.”

Nine teams entered the competition and eight of nine survived the drop! It was up to the engineers from Flour to judge the winners of the competition. The winning team included Angel, Aldo, and Robert. Thank you Felipe Delgado, Dwight Jackson, Vernyl Phillips, and Tanya Aguilar for helping Breakthrough SJC students learn about engineering and enjoy the egg drop competition​!​

How my roots shaped my path: a letter from the new director

My roots run deep in San Juan Capistrano. In the 1920s, my Grandpa Pete attended the Mission Basilica School, walking barefoot to and from school because his family could not afford shoes. He never made it past third grade. In the 1930s, my Grandpa Pete and my Abuelita (grandmother)—both members of immigrant families—worked in the fields that still stand by Marco Forster Middle School. Today, Grandpa Pete is buried in the Mission cemetery and my Abuelita still lives in Dana Point. My own mother attended Marco Forster, graduated from Dana Hills High School, and went to college. My father grew up in Santa Ana, graduated from Santa Ana High School, and went to college. Both of my parents worked hard to overcome the challenge of growing up in low-income households. In beating the odds to earn post-secondary educations, they found a way to break the cycle of poverty for their family. This is the same goal we have here at Breakthrough: to provide a support system to students and families so that they can go to college and break the cycle of poverty. My mother recently told me that she wishes Breakthrough had existed when she was a child because it would have guided her path and could have changed the trajectory for some of her peers who did not go to college.

Today, I am grateful to find myself serving as the new and fully transitioned director of Breakthrough SJC. It is an honor and a blessing to be here, where I can continue to grow my roots in a community as historical and unique as San Juan Capistrano. I have had a great summer leading up to this transition. I have learned so much from the Breakthrough team, the St. Margaret’s team, the students, the families, and all of those in our support system. It has been such a joy watching our students and our teaching fellows commit their summers to overcoming the achievement gap and accelerating toward college. I am eager to connect my experience so far here at Breakthrough with my experience as a teacher and principal in Houston, Texas. I moved to Houston after my undergraduate years at USC, I joined Teach for America, and I had the privilege of earning my MBA at Rice University. While in Houston, I fell in love with the mission of serving students and families from underserved communities.

I look forward to continuing the success that Breakthrough SJC has enjoyed in its first ten years. I think ahead to ten years from now, when we celebrate Breakthrough SJC’s 20th anniversary, and I get chills thinking about the impact we can have. In the year 2025, if our rates stay the same, we will have served over 500 students and over 300 teaching fellows. That is a critical mass of students who can end the cycle of poverty for their families and return to San Juan Capistrano to enhance the community; likewise, that is an incredible number of teachers who can influence the field of education and impact communities across the nation. I am committed to continuing our great work here at Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, and I am excited to strengthen the roots of our students, families, and community.

Thank you,


The Capistrano Dispatch highlights the 10th summer of BTSJC

For the second year in a row, Breakthrough SJC was featured on the cover of The Capistrano Dispatch. The article discusses how the program has expanded over 10 years, including serving 232 local students and training 141 teachers. Former Breakthrough student and rising sophomore at the University of San Francisco, Raul Navarro, and outgoing Director, Lorena Martinez, were profiled in the story and shared their personal histories with Breakthrough SJC.

Click here for the full story in The Capistrano Dispatch

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Students explore career paths

Last week for Career Day, students explored careers that they can consider pursuing after college graduation. Career Day is an annual BTSJC event where we encourage students to dress up as the career they aspire to and we welcome guest speakers from varying careers to speak to our students. This year, BTSJC welcomed five guest speakers: lawyers Jason Velez and Scott McDonald from 1Law, ER doctor Bill Honigman from Kaiser, engineer Kenneth Chen from Fluor, and reporter Norberto Santana from Voice of OC.

Students broke up into small groups to hear presentations from the five different guest speakers. All guest speakers touched on their educational backgrounds and discussed the details of their careers.  Norberto Santana, reporter for the Voice of OC, spoke on his struggles as a first-generation college student and English language learner. One piece of advice he had for students was, “Do what you are passionate about, find what your calling is, that’s three fourths of it.” Thank you to all of the presenters for speaking about your careers and inspiring our students!


Dana Point Youth Advisory Board chooses BTSJC for donation

We are excited to announce that the Dana Point Youth Advisory Board chose Breakthrough SJC to receive their annual charitable donation. Each year the Dana Point Youth Advisory Board raises money through fundraisers and participating in city events and then chooses one charity to donate funds to. We were nominated by four Breakthrough students who are on the Youth Advisory Board: Maite Garcia, Ariana Vargas and Roberto and David Santana. Breakthrough student and rising junior at Dana Hills High School, Ariana Vargas said, “I thought that Breakthrough would be great [for the donation] since the staff puts in a lot of effort to help students. Once I told my fellow Youth Board members what Breakthrough was, they immediately liked it and believed Breakthrough would use the donation well.”

Breakthrough SJC encourages students to give back to their communities and many of our students choose to volunteer in their spare time. Capistrano Valley High School sophomore Natalia Garcia and Marco Forster Middle School student Marisella Banda also served their community by participating in the San Juan Capistrano Youth Advisory Board this past school year. We are grateful for the Dana Point Youth Advisory Board’s donation and are proud of our students for being involved in their communities.

Teaching Fellows return to BTSJC

The summer program is rapidly approaching. We have hired 20 Teaching Fellows, 4 Junior Teachers, 5 Instructional Coaches, and 1 Dean of Students to join us for our 10th summer. Of our summer staff, we are welcoming back former Teaching Fellows Qunsia Daniel, David Pham, Kelsey McKeag, and Jannet Galicia as well as a former Junior Teacher Coral Ramos. 2014 Teaching Fellows Qunsia and David are returning for their second consecutive summer with BTSJC. Qunsia said she is returning to the program this summer because she “thinks about BT often and wanted to go back to see the growth in the students as well as see growth in herself as a teacher.” Current Breakthrough junior Coral is going to use her experience as a 2014 Junior Teacher to excel as a Teaching Fellow this year.

Returners Kelsey and Jannet both taught with BTSJC in 2013 and are now taking on leadership roles in the program. Kelsey will be our Dean of Students and Jannet is joining as the Instructional Coach for our science department. When asked why she is joining BTSJC this summer Jannet replied, “I am returning to BTSJC because the summer I worked with Breakthrough was the most fulfilling of my life. It was the first time I was trusted to run a classroom of my own.” Jannet, a Cornell graduate, is now a middle school teacher in San Jose, CA. Her story is similar to 75% of Breakthrough Collaborative Teaching Fellows across the country who pursue careers in education .

Qunsia, David, Kelsey, Jannet and Coral are all prime examples of how Breakthrough inspires high school and college students become educational leaders. Qunsia has already accepted a position with Teach For America and will join their program in 2016. BTSJC teachers will be working to end educational inequity alongside more than 1,000 Teaching Fellows across 25 cities. We cannot wait to have these outstanding educators back in our program and for them to share their knowledge and experiences of BTSJC with the rest of our summer staff! ​

Celebrating another year of middle school tutoring

Our middle school tutoring program for 2014-2015 came to a close last Thursday with an awards ceremony, graduation, and potluck. Top performing students in both 7th and 8th grade won awards for ‘Student of the Year’, ‘Reader of the Year’ and two 8th grade Valedictorians were chosen. Assistant Director Alex Serna also acknowledged the volunteer teachers who are from surrounding schools including St. Margaret’s, JSerra, Rancho Santa Margarita, Capistrano Valley, Dana Hills, and San Juan Hills high schools. In total, we had 42 high school volunteers for our middle school program, our biggest group yet!

Current 8th grade students received a Breakthrough SJC graduation certificate, marking their transition to high school. This upcoming summer will also be their last time participating in our six-week summer program as students. The event concluded with a potluck, thanks to generous Breakthrough families who provided the food, and students received a yearbook to remember their fantastic year at the middle school tutoring program!

Students get a head start on college applications at Junior Retreat

We held our annual Junior Retreat on May 16th to give Breakthrough SJC juniors an opportunity to learn more about the college admissions process. During the retreat, Assistant Director Alex Serna and Director Lorena Martinez delivered workshops on researching colleges, creating a preliminary college list, writing personal statements and creating a resume. Throughout the day students engaged in various ice breaker activities, including a short game of ultimate Frisbee to build a supportive community.

The past few months, juniors have been working with community members who volunteer their time to help our students with the college application process. These mentors made a guest appearance during lunch to participate in team building activities and to help students draft their personal statements. Students had a long and rigorous day, spending 10 hours learning and working, but they are now 10 steps ahead in the college admissions process. Assistant Director Alex Serna said he was proud that the juniors took initiative to start the admissions process and he knows that “in the fall, when most students are frantically starting, our students will be many steps closer to realizing their dreams of being the first in their families to attend college.” This summer Breakthrough SJC students will continue to craft their personal statements and create their final college list after spring grades are released.

Breakthrough SJC students tour Library and Bookstore

To celebrate April’s reading theme, a group of fifteen middle school students and their teachers took a trip to the SJC Library and Bookstore. Librarian Nicole Orth lead a tour of the local library and educated students about the online and print resources that are available for their use. Students also got a look at the SJC Library’s beautiful courtyard.

After the tour, students took a trip to the SJC Friends of the Library Bookstore. Ms. Shirley Sauvageau was a very gracious host and had a special sign and treats for Breakthrough SJC students. Each student also got to pick out one book of their choosing to take home for free.

This is the second year the SJC Library and Bookstore have hosted Breakthrough SJC students and generously donated books. We would like to thank Nicole Orth for arranging and hosting the tour and Shirley Sauvageau for being a gracious host and giving books to our students!