New Multi-year Strategic Plan in Full Swing as Breakthrough Enters Summer Program

This summer, Breakthrough SJC will enter its thirteenth summer school program, and this coming year will mark exciting changes for the program. During the 2017-2018 school year, we launched a new, multi-year strategic plan, focused on three priorities over the next five years:

  1. Support students through college graduation.
  2. Serve more students.
  3. Create institutional sustainability.

Support students through college graduation – This priority stems from ongoing conversation with our Breakthrough alumni and parents, who have told us that the transition to college is challenging, especially when no one else in the home has gone to college. In fact, on a survey of students, parents, and alumni about how Breakthrough could evolve its services, the “Provide more support for students once they enter college (alumni support)” option was far and above the top choice.

This summer, we will support students through college graduation by launching our inaugural “BT Bridge” program, an eight-session workshop designed to guide students from high school graduation to the college campus experience.

Serve more students – This priority stems from a message that we continue to hear from our students, families, and community. The message is that there are more students who want to be part of Breakthrough, make the commitment, and graduate from college. As one surveyed parent put it, “I would like to see other children have the same opportunities…so they can be the first in their families to graduate.”

This summer, we will serve more students by welcoming 118 students, our largest number to date! In fact, to ensure that students are getting Breakthrough-quality instruction, we will also increase from 20 to 24 teaching fellows.

Create institutional sustainability – This priority stems from Breakthrough’s ongoing commitment to institutional and fiscal responsibility. We are excited to grow, and we are wholeheartedly committed to evolving in a gradual, purposeful manner.

We have already started to create institutional sustainability. We recently established our first-ever endowment, which will set us up for future success!

Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano continues guiding students from middle school to college, and now we have a strategic plan to guide our very bright future!

You can read the full strategic plan here.

Announcement: New Transitions for Breakthrough SJC Leaders

As we near the end of the 2017-2018 school year, Breakthrough is excited to announce two important transitions. Current Director Victor Cota will be moving into the role of Director of Equity and Inclusion at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School. Current Assistant Director Alex Serna will step into the role of Director of Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano. Both transitions are effective August 1, 2018. Join us in congratulating Victor and Alex!

Please read below for further communication regarding both transitions:


Dear Breakthrough SJC Community,

I am pleased to share the news of the appointment of Alex Serna as Director of Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano beginning August 1, 2018. Alex has been the Assistant Director for Breakthrough SJC since 2014, leading the academic program and building strong relationships with students, families and partner organizations. Alex has been an integral part of Breakthrough’s growth and success in recent years, as a leader in the summer academic programs, the college mentor program, improving student retention, the multiyear strategic plan, and in the field study with University of California, Irvine.

This transition comes as I move into a new role as Director of Equity and Inclusion with St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, our Breakthrough program host school and lead sponsor. This is an exciting opportunity to develop my passion for equity work and lead St. Margaret’s school-wide focus on an inclusive community and cultural competency. I will remain connected to Breakthrough, and Alex and I will continue to work closely together.

Previously, Alex served as Academic Program Coordinator with the Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles that provides low-income families and children access to high-quality schools and education. At YPI, Alex focused on a high-school completion program and supported grant work on special projects.

Alex is an incredible role model for Breakthrough students with an impressive educational journey of his own as a first-generation college graduate. He matriculated to the University of California, Berkeley from Santa Ana College. He discovered the power of mentorship through the support of many professors who guided and nurtured him toward his future, and this ignited his own passion for working with students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Alex completed a leadership internship in the selective Institute for Recruitment of Teachers with Phillips Academy Andover. He holds a Master of Education from the University of California, Los Angeles with a focus on urban education.  He is currently a Fellow in the New American Leaders, leadership program and has recently completed a certificate in college advisement with Columbia University Teachers College.

A lifelong learner and dedicated educator, it is clear that Alex embodies the expertise and personal passion for the mission of Breakthrough SJC, and we are confident he will continue to strengthen the program and student growth and success. Please join me in congratulating and welcoming Alex Serna in his new role.


Victor Cota
Director | Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano

St. Margaret’s Episcopal School

Office: 949.661.0108 x1342 | Cell: 949.307.3793

Breakthrough Celebrates Annual Induction Ceremony

Breakthrough’s College Mentor Program Induction Ceremony was held at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School on May 2nd. In this ceremony we honor the hard work that seniors and their mentors in the College Mentor Program (CMP) dedicated to the college application process over the course of the 2017-2018 school year. At the end of the ceremony, Breakthrough juniors were partnered with their new mentor and inducted into the CMP. This launches the beginning of their journey through the college application process. All Breakthrough families were recognized for their dedication in supporting their son or daughter throughout the year.

Giselle, a San Juan Hills High School Senior, gave a beautiful speech where she shared her experience with her mentor and gave advice to the incoming seniors after going through the program herself. We were touched as she shared, “I do recall the time when I finally shared my personal experiences with Kia [my mentor] for my college essay. We really dug deep into my soul for them. I felt comfortable with her but I was a bit nervous. It was at that moment when I knew that I could trust Kia and go to her for guidance.” We are truly grateful that our mentors have a great impact on the lives of our seniors as they look for guidance.

The College Mentor Program started in 2015 and we are now starting our fourth CMP cycle! It started with seven students and mentors in 2015, and has grown to 24 students and mentors for the 2018-2019 school year! The CMP is designed to have juniors partnered with a mentor to provide them an additional support as they enter a rigorous college application path. Our mentors are very dedicated and generous community members that give time to meet once a month and encourage the juniors in every step towards applying to college. Our current mentees, with the help of their mentors, submitted over 265 college applications and received 85 acceptances. We are excited to continue supporting all of our seniors and helping them build personal skills to carry into their college careers.

Breakthrough Students Show Leadership in the Ambassador Program at University of California, Irvine

Capistrano Valley High School juniors, Bertha Olmedo and Cristian Aguilar, were nominated and selected to serve in the Diversity, Inclusion & Racial Healing Ambassador Program at University of California, Irvine (UCI). This program brings juniors from several schools to participate in seminars about topics that affect student populations across the country. They will touch topics that include: race issues, daily stereotypes, political opinions, ethnic/religious backgrounds, and student hardships. Bertha shared, “I am proud to be given this opportunity because looking at the topics to be discussed I expect to gain knowledge on how things like race and religion contribute to creating barriers for each and every one of us. I hope to use this information to contribute to discussions and projects in my own school to allow us to be more open and welcoming toward one another.”

They both attended their first meeting on April 12. Capistrano Valley High School provided transportation for them to attend to and from UCI. Representatives of Dana Hills High School, EL Modena High School, El Toro High School, Fountain Valley High School, Garden Grove and Westminster all participated. One thing that Cristian shared was, “When we began our discussions I realized that I was going to be receiving a different perspective of the world. I know that I am going to learn a lot more from people and the struggles they face because of their color or ethnicity.” Breakthrough encourages our students to be active members of society and open-minded to daily issues that arise within their community.

Breakthrough Marches at the 2018 Swallow’s Day Parade

The Swallow’s Day Parade is an annual event in San Juan Capistrano every March. It celebrates the swallows’ return to the city and residents joins together in downtown. Since 2006, Breakthrough is honor to have the opportunity to march in the parade. The San Juan Capistrano Fiesta Association hosts the Swallow’s Day Parade to be one of the nation’s largest non-motorized parades.

This past Saturday, we had a great unifying group of over 60 middle school and high school students that marched proudly. The Breakthrough staff and students gathered at San Juan Elementary School excited to start the parade. The city of San Juan began filling the sidewalks and seating themselves to see the various bands, equestrians, walking groups, and horse-drawn floats. The bell rang and it was time to march. Our students started chanting and cheering to show off their Breakthrough pride as they all wore their green “Power in me. Power in us.” shirts. Freshman Italivi (shown in the picture second from the right holding the banner) stated, “I was very happy to march because I am proud of everything that Breakthrough does for me, and having my family watch me be in the Breakthrough group chanting is my way of giving back.” We were fortunate to have such an amazing group of bright students represent Breakthrough. We are excited to represent again next year with even more students!

Natalie Yee, High School Tutor and St. Margaret’s Junior, Brings Science Fair to Breakthrough Students

Natalie Yee, a junior at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, has always had a passion for math, science, and service. Natalie began her involvement with Breakthrough as a middle school tutor since she was a freshman. Currently, she is also a high school Breakthrough tutor and president of the STEM club at St. Margaret’s.

Natalie and fellow St. Margaret’s volunteers, including her mother, helped in setting up the fair for about sixty Breakthrough students at Marco Forster Middle School. “I hope to instill an appreciation of STEM in others in my community and help others to succeed in these exciting fields. My goal has always been to share my love of STEM and that STEM is fun and it sets the foundation for successful futures in whatever fields students may pursue.”

At the science fair, Natalie and volunteers demonstrated that math and science concepts can be applied to the real world. “I run fun activities and offer volunteer opportunities for the high school students to connect with the lower school students at St. Margaret’s. After coordinating with the lower school for the past two years I was happy to present STEM to the Breakthrough students, so they too, can see the fun side of STEM.” Five stations were set up with activities that included puzzles, estimation guesses games, how to make slime, lava lamps, and how to measure how many pennies sank a boat. Students were actively engaged as they went from station to station curious about what they were going to do next.

Breakthrough greatly appreciates how involved and passionate Natalie is with the work she does. In addition, she is also greatly admired by the St. Margaret’s faculty as well. Dr. Jennifer Ross-Viola, a science teacher at SMES states, “Natalie is an amazing student-leader.  She combines her passion for all things STEM and strives to bring events and opportunities to others that inspire them to love those fields too. Her contributions to our school and the broader Orange County community in the area of STEM and service are truly remarkable!”

We hope to continue seeing Natalie’s involvement as a senior and see what other interesting and fun events she will lead! Awesome work Natalie!

MUN Students Hosts a Panel on Human Rights

Model United Nations (MUN) is a St. Margaret’s Episcopal School club that meets with our middle school students at In-Session on Thursdays. MUN helps students further strengthen their skills in interpersonal communication and critical thinking by ensuring that they are informed global citizens. Last week, MUN hosted a panel to look at global issues that continue to oppress humans and their rights. The panel consisted of the following members, Ms. Kimberly Kim who talked about racism, Mrs. Diane Adamson who presented on feminism, Dr. Janice Avalone who represented mental health issues and gave helpful resources, and Sahar Khashayar who brought LGBT awareness.

Every person on the panel brought in-depth information regarding each topic and the statistics surprised many students. When stated, “1 out of 5 child or teen has a mental disorder,” the students quickly looked around and began counting. They were astonished to know that someone in their group of five could be part of this statistic. Furthermore, students felt empathy when they were informed that “1 out of 4 parents cannot get help for their child’s mental disorder due to the lack of resources.”

Another topic that also resonated with the students was racism. Some students expressed that they too, identify themselves to be part of minorities that encounter racism. Many were able to relate because they too shared similar stories to the examples provided by the panel. In addition, students learned of ways to overcome situations of racism by involving a supervising adult or individually taking a stand to defend someone. Eighth grader, Edgar, stated, “What I took away from this is that you have a voice and calling people out on the spot about their comments that hurt other people is good so that they stop doing it.”  It is great that students know that they can do more when present in a circumstance that degrades another person and their rights.

The goal was to help the students develop their individual voices in society and have a better understanding of the complexity of human rights. This panel sets the starting point for students to embark on a mission to work on a campaign project in the next few weeks. We look forward to seeing our students become engaged and advocate for equal human rights.

Breakthrough’s Selection Process is in Motion for the Class of 2024

All sixth graders at Marco Forster Middle School got the opportunity to learn about Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano. This year 14 presentations were given over two days to recruit students for the class of 2024. The sixth graders learned that Breakthrough students commit to a six-year tuition free program that provides resources and opportunities to be able to graduate from college.

Breakthrough now maintains a strong relationship and reputation with many Marco Forster Middle School teachers who encourage their students to apply. Mr. Nelson teaches sixth grade science and is a great supporter of Breakthrough. When asked his thoughts about Breakthrough he stated, “You don’t know what you don’t know. Especially some parents that did not have a college education. They do not know what steps to take or what going to college really entails. Sadly, sometimes it is too late, but Breakthrough is a great guide because there is focus on what expenses and requirements are necessary to be on the right successful college path.” Mr. Nelson was also the first in his family to attend college, graduating from University of California, Berkeley, and his parents struggled to get him all the resources necessary, so he admires what Breakthrough does for his students.

In addition, we hosted two Family Information Nights for families to learn about our program. Topics included the year round support, three mandatory summer years, and the College Mentor Program offered. Breakthrough puts a lot of effort in demonstrating that the college path is achieved through team effort and parents also have a commitment to their student. Thus, parents are informed every year of the steps that their children are participating in and how to support their son or daughter. Breakthrough builds strong student-parent relationships to maintain effective communication. We look forward to welcoming the class of 2024.

Breakthrough Celebrates its 2017 Year Achievements at Annual Holiday Potluck

Breakthrough came together on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 to celebrate this year’s achievements. It is estimated around sixty families joined Breakthrough’s holiday potluck after their busy workdays. Many parents of Breakthrough went an extra mile to try and put a beautiful night together for their sons and daughters. Everyone was happy to share some holiday spirit along with a thoughtful dinner.

The Breakthrough staff shared some exciting news about moving forward with the new five-year strategic plan. It was announced that forty new applications for next year’s incoming class of Breakthrough have been submitted so far. It was also celebrated that tutoring and In-Session for current students is supporting them in their academics. There are 158 college applications submitted by our 27 seniors. Parents and students were thrilled to hear about Mari Morales Gonzalez, the new Community Coordinator, and her experience. She gave a speech as a first class Breakthrough student who has gone through the program and now graduated to return back and support the new students.

Families later in the evening were joined by Santa Claus for family pictures! Students and their younger siblings posed for pictures. The families also joined in some holiday spirit activities like holiday coloring and cookie decoration.  Families were happy to have the opportunity to engage with each other and enjoy some time to socialize at the dinner tables. Students were able to take a fun break from their studies and join a great mingling opportunity. The Breakthrough staff is extremely proud of every student’s achievements and look forward to a prosperous New Year. Happy Holidays to the whole Breakthrough family!

Breakthrough Welcomes Marina (Mari) Morales Gonzalez, Our Newest AmeriCorps VISTA Community Coordinator

Breakthrough staff, students, and parents are honored to welcome Marina (Mari) Morales Gonzalez as Breakthrough’s new AmeriCorps VISTA Community Coordinator. Mari will be engaging with the Capistrano Valley community and reaching out to individuals, organizations, and Breakthrough supporters to sustain strong relationships in support of our program and its students.

Mari was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and brought over to the United States along with her mother to join her father when she was only six months old. She was raised all her life in the city of San Juan Capistrano, home of the swallows. Mari, like her younger brother, grew up playing soccer. She was part of the AYSO and the Capistrano girls league. She also found time to explore several afterschool programs that caught her attention like elementary camp, SRLA, and Seatech. She is fervent about being involved in an activity that keeps her mind active.

Mari graduated from California State University of Dominguez Hills with a BA in Spanish Linguistics and a minor in Health Science in May 2017. Being a single mother of a four-year-old girl, named Natalie, has inspired her to pursue working with children and educating young minds to fulfill their dreams. “It was hard to balance my roles of being a student, a mom, a daughter, and an employee but raising Natalie along the way has shown me that children can adapt and learn tremendously if given patience and attention.” Mari continues to strive for further education as she works on her Associates Degree in Child Development Education at our local Saddleback Community College.

Mari is a valuable team member because she was part of the first class of Breakthrough in 2006 as a low income student from Marco Forster Middle School with dreams to go to college. She demonstrated her desire to have the best education possible and became a Tartan Scholar at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, graduating in 2012. Mari is thrilled to return to St. Margaret’s and take on a role on the Breakthrough team as a member of AmeriCorps VISTA. As a VISTA corps member, Mari commits one year to serve as a catalyst for change, living and working alongside community members to break the cycle of poverty that continues in America. She is passionate to help her community and support local underrepresented students who need further guidance and resources. Mari, welcome to the team!