It started with the desire to create educational opportunities to help low-income students achieve a brighter future. Along the way, two nonprofits, Achieve Miami and Breakthrough Miami, discovered that their models inspired everyone involved: volunteers, teachers and mentors, no matter the income, race or gender. Here are their stories:
Achieve Miami began with a focus on two problems - educational challenges within low-income communities and access to opportunities outside of the five-day school week.
It started with a Saturday program to help elementary school kids in Liberty City. Mentors were brought in from a public high school from an economically disadvantaged area and a private high school from an affluent one.
The mix of kids from different backgrounds resulted in something magical, said Leslie Miller Saiontz, founder and president of Achieve Miami. It became educational and inspirational for all.
Now Achieve Miami serves more than 1,700 students, is in seven elementary schools, and has participants from students in more than 60 Miami-Dade County high schools. There are several different programs -- on weekends, after school and during the summer.
Achieve Saturday, its flagship program, began with eight elementary school kids at Holmes Elementary in Liberty City, and 32 volunteer high school students from Gulliver Prep and Miami Northwestern Senior high schools.
“The numbers were tough, but we were committed. In a few months, about 100 elementary school kids were showing up for the Saturday program, along with about 100 high school volunteers,” Saiontz said. “Today thousands of kids show up for Achieve Saturday.”
In the Saturday program, elementary school kids are fed breakfast and a snack, and are matched with a high school big buddy. They do literacy activities and take home a book each week to start their own home library, Saiontz said.
Achieve Summer is a six-week program for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
“It’s a fabulous six weeks for students who oftentimes would be doing absolutely nothing, staying at home, hanging out in their neighborhoods,” Saiontz said. “Instead they’re coming into an environment where they’re not just learning, but we are actually preventing summer learning loss.”
A year-round Achieve Scholars program for high school students draws from 10 Title 1 schools. Besides the academic component, students are trained in college prep and personal development. They also are paid as interns for the six-week Achieve Summer program and work alongside student volunteers from more than 60 Miami-Dade County high schools.
The interaction between students of all ages, races, income levels and neighborhoods creates a unique energy, Saiontz said.
“We all like to think that a perfect world is where everybody is open-minded and lives together in harmony. The truth is, most people grow up in their silos, confined to their neighborhood,” she said. “One of the things that gets me excited is that with Achieve, every student that participates, no matter what their neighborhood, thinks ‘Your Miami is Our Miami’ and they celebrate that.”
Achieve Music is an after-school program for about 280 elementary and middle students. “We all know how important music is to well-being, especially when you’re young,” Saiontz said. “It is a means of comfort, expressing yourself or experiencing joy.”
An alumni program provides support to Achieve Scholars after high school graduation.
Achieve Miami also is involved in a program to provide internet access to low-income communities, and a Teacher Accelerator Program to fast-track college seniors to become Miami-Dade County educators.
The Teacher Accelerator Program launched in January and is a partnership between University of Miami and Teach for America. It targets non-education majors and includes a one-semester course the last semester of their senior year on the basics of education and the school system. Teacher candidates are paid $5,000 for a six-week summer internship, where they learn from veteran teachers. Candidates receive professional development through accreditation, and when they are ready, a full-time job with Miami-Dade County public schools.
“I think our public school system has a really strong foundation, but the education system in general needs help,” Saiontz said. “Our success is reliant on these young students…The challenges in our communities, like climate change, infrastructure, homelessness, housing are going to be solved one day by the students in these schools.”
Helping students break through barriers like low income, a broken home or a language difficulty to find educational opportunities is what motivates Lori-Ann Cox, CEO of Breakthrough Miami, each and every day.
Breakthrough Miami serves 1,500 youths at seven locations throughout South Florida with a student-teaching-student model that encourages mentorship and leadership.
It recruits from primarily Title 1 schools, making presentations to highly motivated, academically curious children in the fourth grade who meet certain economic qualifications, Cox said.
“It’s a competitive process with about 500 qualifying applicants for about 250 slots each year,” she said.
The students, known as Breakthrough Scholars, begin the summer before entering fifth grade and continue through high school graduation. The program consists of an eight-week summer session and two Saturdays a month during the school year, so it’s quite a commitment, Cox said.
“We’re basically asking nine-year-olds to commit to eight years of their summers and two Saturdays per month,” she said. “That’s one of the ways we’re measuring motivation, because we are intentionally presenting directly to the students.”
The year-round program begins by focusing on academics. Transportation and meals are provided.
“The anchor of our program is our summer institute. What it primarily does is expose students to the material that they’re going to be seeing in the next year,” Cox said. “We’re always keeping students ahead, and we are intentionally doing work with them to counteract what is called summer slide.”
As students progress through the program, there are opportunities for leadership and mentoring.
Breakthrough U is the high school portion of the program. Besides their own academic enrichment, students can volunteer to teach younger students in the program. High school students not in the program also are recruited as mentors and volunteers.
Breakthrough Miami also brings in talent from the community by hiring paid teaching fellows, 17- to 24-year-olds, in conjunction with AmeriCorps. The paid fellows receive professional development and a stipend to pay for their own educational costs.
The high school students in Breakthrough U also benefit from exposure to different careers, including a partnership with FIU and an urban studio called Growlight to help them learn about design and urban planning. Another project exposes them to the field of commercial real estate.
“Real estate is traditionally one of the ways that people can build generational wealth,” Cox said. “It’s one of those areas that could use some additional diversity.”
Breakthrough U students have access to a college tour and a college boot camp every year, where admissions professionals from major universities and college consultants teach students about prestigious scholarships and financial aid.
In 2020 Breakthrough Miami had three Gates Scholarship winners. “If you’re familiar with the Gate Scholarship, it’s about 36,000 people that apply across the country and they select 300,” Cox said.
The three Gates winners have gone on to high achievements. “One is at Harvard. She plans to go to law school. One is at MIT, she’s studying engineering, and the other one is at Brown, with plans to be a neurosurgeon,” Cox said.
Breakthrough Miami will add a new site in the summer of 2025 to serve more students, she said.
“These kids represent the future growth of our community. They’re talented; they’re motivated; they’re driven. They’re very much in tune with what is going on in their communities and they want to make a difference,” Cox said. “We are inspiring leaders and we want to make sure that your ZIP code does not determine your opportunities in the future.”