Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia - Winter Newsletter

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WINTER 2023 NEWSLETTER Digital Edition


We are in the thick of recruiting season for the 2023 Summer Program and the offices of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia are abuzz.

We have our eyes – and hearts – set on expanding the Summer 2023 program by nearly one-third, to 180 from 140 Scholars in 2022. That expansion calls for a rise in the number of Teaching Fellows, and we are casting our net wider to recruit 28 college students who aspire to be teachers, yielding 10 more Fellows compared to last summer. Our growth plan includes not only an increase in enrollment numbers, but also enhancements to the curriculum.

Breakthrough made great strides in the last year, and we are determined to build on this momentum and continue to provide stellar programming to highly-motivated and educationally underserved middle schoolers in Philadelphia. As we pursue our goal of education equity, we want to make sure Scholars are well-rounded and confident, fully prepared for a seamless transition to top choice high schools. To that end, we will bolster content in Science and Math, Literature and Writing and incorporate more offerings that focus on character building and resilience. On March 4, we will welcome Breakthrough families to campus for our High School Fair and Information Session about applying to various types of high schools in Greater Philadelphia.

Many of you who attended our Breakfast of Champions event in October got a taste of the impact Breakthrough has on our Scholars and Teaching Fellows through the candid and bubbly speeches of alumni Eric Stern Jr. and Iliana Correa (more details in newsletter).

Breakthrough’s impact is lasting, unique and transformative, and we rejoice with all the stories of inspiring trajectories taken by the students who attended our program. We want to hear more stories that highlight the impact of our work, and in the process, strengthen our alumni community. Visit our newly revamped website at to read more about out program, Scholars and Fellows. Special thanks to Emanuel Pirvulescu, GFS Network Systems Manager, and Christina Hungspruke for supporting this effort.

Some of these stories will also be told during our Annual Spring Soirée on April 27 – RSVP here! This is a great opportunity to meet Scholars and Teaching Fellows, besides having some fun with trivia and like-minded neighbors who embrace our mission to achieve equity and diversity in education. Join us and our emcee for the evening, Nydia Han – Anchor and Consumer Investigative Reporter at 6abc.

There is no need to wait until spring, though. If you are curious about Breakthrough’s work and would like to share ideas, volunteer, or RSVP to tour our program during Visiting Day on March 4, please reach out to us at any time. We fullheartedly welcome the chance to connect with our community.

With appreciation,

p.s. Special thanks to our newsletter contributors, Mara Lemos-Stein (BTGP volunteer) and Michelle Reyes Aleti (Communications & Development Manager, BTGP) for writing and editing our Winter 2023 newsletter.



Breakthrough welcomed over 75 students from middle schools across the Philadelphia School District to our School Year Program (SYP). Our SYP kicked off on October 1, 2022 and takes place on Saturdays from 10:00-2:00 pm. Students in grades 6-8 brought their enthusiasm and curiosity to the campus of Germantown Friends School to embark on their learning journey under the guidance and instruction of their Teaching Fellows.

Eleven Teaching Fellows taught the fall curriculum, which included math, writing and literature, public speaking, standardized test preparation, and the classics. Our Scholars were engaged in hands-on, interactive lessons based on national standards each weekend. In addition to the core curriculum, they received strategies and practice on how to successfully take standardized tests, how to speak with confidence in public, and the basics of the classic languages. On top of that, our Scholars got the opportunity to engage with their peers and form lifelong friendships every Saturday.

Learning was not limited just to the classroom. With the pandemic releasing its hold, our scholars were able to go on field trips, including visits to the Philadelphia High School Fair and a cancer research laboratory in Center City (see article in this newsletter). We also welcomed professionals from a plethora of fields to our campus for Career Conversations. Scholars interacted with judges, attorneys, engineers, nurses and consultants, to name a few. These individuals spent a half hour with our Scholars, sharing details of their professions and the steps they took to succeed in their fields. As usual, our Scholars had plenty of engaging questions and gained valuable insights from each session.

We are excited to have our dedicated and committed Scholars back on campus in January to continue on their learning journey, and to have fun along the way!



Breakthrough’s 8th grade class took their first field trip of the semester in early November. The Scholars went to the Curtis Building in downtown Philadelphia, an office building that houses multiple labs and law firms, among others. They had the opportunity to visit two of those labs: Imvax and BioLabs.

From Imvax, they learned about the development of an innovative cancer treatment for glioblastomas and how it helps patients battle this especially brutal form of cancer. Scholars were also able to walk through some of the labs and offices to learn more about their equipment and lab maintenance.

From BioLabs, the Scholars learned more about all the different things that make up a lab, from technology, to funding, to design, to maintenance and research. Here, the Scholars also got an opportunity to see the lab construction process first-hand. We got our hard hats on and walked through a lab construction zone, as our guide explained where certain areas of the lab would be built and why.

After the tours, we were invited downstairs for a wonderful lunch with our guides, where everyone was able to relax and ask follow-up questions. Some of the Scholars seemed to have a genuine interest in how labs go from a research interest to a startup to an established company. They learned a lot about the education and fundraising that go into the process, so I’m sure we have some budding laboratory scientists in our midst! Special thanks to Amelia Zellander, PhD and Laboratory Lead from Imvax, for creating this unique and inspiring opportunity for Breakthrough’s 8th grade Scholars.



It has been a very exciting time for recruitment at Breakthrough, and we are starting to see the fruits of the hard work and dedication of our small but mighty staff. Over the past few months, we significantly improved the application process and targeted our outreach to local communities. Both developments are crucial to support Breakthrough’s mission.

Application Process

One of the drawbacks of the former application process was the collection of inaccurate or incomplete data from applicants, which meant that we were unable to convert many of the interested students into actual applications. The former process also involved a lot of manual work, relying heavily on staff to track application statuses. Now, the entirety of the application process has been moved to an online database. All of the application and inquiry materials are web-based and any information we receive lives within that database. Families upload all documents online, and recommendations from educators can also be submitted online. Thanks to this shift to an electronic process, Breakthrough is now paperless starting January 2023!

We also created a nomination process for educators, parents, alumni and friends of Breakthrough that is another avenue for collecting correct contact information about any potential students. The information is collected through an online form available on our website, as well as a QR code that is featured on our new nomination pamphlet. If you’d like to nominate a student today, fill out a nomination form online!

Breakthrough in the Community

Throughout last Fall, Breakthrough made a push to be more involved in schools in our local community. We’ve been doing school visits to talk to students and educators about Breakthrough and the improved application process. We also participated in a number of community events, such as the Philly High School Fair and the JS Jenks Fall Festival. Our next priority is to build relationships by engaging with our local schools in a more meaningful and sustainable way. We have had the opportunity to be long term volunteers at JB Kelly and Logan Elementary Schools. Through these initiatives, we are positioning ourselves as a part of the community around us and reintroducing Breakthrough to educators and community leaders.



Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia: Shaping an Educator’s perspective

Gena Merliss was studying abroad in Kenya in 1996 when a package arrived. In it was a hand-decorated acceptance letter to become a Teaching Fellow at Summerbridge Germantown.

Summerbridge had only been founded one year earlier, and it would be a number of years before it was rebranded as Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia. Gena did not really know that, but one thing she did know: “It was going to be a bunch of people who are really fun and really excited to be there.”

Summerbridge wasn’t Gena’s first educator experience. She first decided on the education path after volunteering in an afterschool program in Chester County. But Summerbridge made her believe in the power of education. At Chester County, she worked with a kid who brought his homework. “It was rote memorization. He had zero interest in it. He was so fast at it and it was a complete waste of his time. I just sat and watched him.”

Summerbridge was different. “The experiences that the kids had were so different from what that kid was having in his school. But I felt like this is totally doable. So why are people doing this worksheet-based garbage that isn’t engaging kids?” Even more importantly, Summerbridge gave Gena some tools to engage students. Gena learned about the amount of planning that goes into teaching, spending hours every night with her contemporary Teaching Fellows, planning classes, throwing out her expectations of teaching all of evolution over one summer.

One project still stands out to Gena today, when she was teaching the students how animals adapt to their environment. “I had them create their own animal, and they had to choose what environment it lived in, and build paper mache animals, and then they had to describe why they were adapted to that environment: what their legs were like, what their eyes were like, what their skin was like and more.” As the kids were working, building and talking about their animals, Gena’s mentor walked in. The mentor was at first taken aback, Gena remembers that he at first thought everything was out of control, but then he realized it was controlled chaos.

And of course, there are some kids that you just can’t forget: “Kevin rarely sat down. He



was one of those kids who had so much energy and was very lovely, but it was often expressed in a way that was distracting to others, so I needed to manage him. One day he escaped during lunch time. I suddenly walked into my classroom and there he was sitting in front of the fan, singing to himself with the fan distorting his voice. It was the most adorable, funny thing. He was fully entertained and he was fully naughty. I hadn’t even noticed he was missing!”

When Gena left Summerbridge, she felt like she had some skills as a teacher, but it was still mostly improvisation. So right after graduating college she entered the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Education program, which also allowed her more experience inside a classroom and year-round school.

In the twenty-five years since she left Summerbridge, she has been a founding science teacher at the Boston Evening Academy and a teacher at the Parker Charter School in Massachusetts. Gena felt drawn to the school reform of the late 1990s, focusing on having students think deeply and do interdisciplinary work, places where teachers reflected about their work, places like Summerbridge. She then moved on to teaching teachers. Today, Gena is a PhD candidate and Adjunct Professor in Education at the University of Rochester.




Assistant Principal, Edwin Forrest Elementary School

I chose to become a part of Breakthrough because of the opportunities it provides to our marginalized students from disenfranchised communities around Philadelphia. This program is relevant to me because programs such as Breakthrough helped me pursue my college career and become the first person in my immediate family to go to college and graduate.

Breakthrough targets students before they reach high school, because middle school is such a crucial age in our city to get caught up in the wrong type of activities. Many of our youth just need that opportunity to see more of the world and explore their individual talents, and Breakthrough does this very thing.

Breakthrough is a program that helps break barriers and prepares our students for their future selves, by changing outcomes and instilling a growth mindset on the young and for them to believe in the many possibilities ahead of them.


Deputy General Counsel, Corporate and Assistant Secretary, Vectrus

As an immigrant from Nepal, education was pivotal to me in leveling the playing field and affording me with professional and growth opportunities that are generally not available to women of color. Consequently, I personally relate to Breakthrough’s core mission of education equity, and I am excited to give back to the community by leveraging education to access better opportunities and resources.

Sarita currently serves as Vice President, Deputy General Counsel, Corporate and Assistant Secretary for V2X, Inc. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from the University of Maryland, College Park (magna cum laude), and a Juris Doctor degree from the George Washington University Law School. Sarita lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband and her daughter, a high schooler at Germantown Friends School.

There are so many great missions out there but Breakthrough’s focus on changing trajectories so early in a child’s life stands out to me. The mission’s focus on finding younger, high-potential children that could use support through the multi-year program during their formative years, I think creates a multiplier effect for long-term impact.

Annual Spring Soirée

Thursday, April 27, 2023 6 to 8:30pm

Germantown Cricket Club

Meet Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia Scholars and Teaching Fellows, and team up in a competitive trivia game to raise funds for Breakthrough. Join us for this annual spring fundraiser on April 27. Last year’s event sold out, so get your tickets today!

Includes dinner, open bar, silent auction and trivia night

RSVP or Make a Donation HERE!

KANCHAN RAI Development Committee New Advisory Board Member New Advisory Board Member New Committee Member


Over 100 supporters of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia gathered for our Breakfast of Champions in October, and we had record-breaking fundraising over coffee and pastries at the beautiful Philadelphia Cricket Club ballroom.

We raised close to $90,000 that will directly fund our program, the most ever from this annual benefit. Thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of donors, we met a fundraising challenge and were able to unlock a $25,000 matching gift. The unprecedented level of contributions – from longtime supporters and new friends alike – reflects the community’s genuine appreciation for Breakthrough’s work and shared concern for the challenges of Philadelphia’s education system.

As voiced by our Executive Director Michelle Palmer, “we are experiencing shortages in our teacher workforce and lacking diversity among educators” as the city is dealing with record-high resignations. The losses in student learning in Philadelphia, already concerning, intensified during the pandemic. But the disruption of the lockdown and remote learning drove many families to seek Breakthrough’s program.

That was the case of Sydney Rolle-Stern, who enrolled her son Eric “during one of the most unsure times of our lives.” She told Breakfast attendees that Breakthrough offered consistency and extra support for her son, something “he could use especially at that time.”

For his part, Eric shared about eventually appreciating his parents’ decision to send him to Breakthrough. He is now enrolled in ninth grade at LaSalle College High School. Besides the academic “leg up” and preparation for high school, Eric said that he learned that “I get to choose…I don’t have to take what is handed to me.” Then he went off script, delighting the room with a display of boldness as only a confident young teenager can, teasing the next speaker to outdo his presentation. His spot was followed by a video of the program at work, so Eric’s challenge still stands.



Iliana Correa, currently attending Arcadia College, taught science during last summer, an experience she said was rewarding and valuable for her future career. She is studying Chemistry and hopes to be a teacher, but her college course doesn’t call for in-class experience until her senior year, she told the audience. At Breakthrough, she got to learn from seasoned educators, and to share her passion for science with rising 7th graders.

Attendees of the Breakfast of Champions also heard from Breakthrough’s Co-Dean of Faculty Matt Greenawalt, who also teaches at Germantown Friends School. His enthusiasm for Breakthrough is very personal, as it was a summer as a Teaching Fellow that set him on the path to becoming a teacher, something he hadn’t considered before.

The power of education to transform lives was in full display at the Breakfast of Champions. The generous donations from the event will help fund our program so we can continue to expose students to opportunities that just might change their trajectory. As Mrs. Rolle-Stern said, Breakthrough is one of Philadelphia’s best kept secrets, but one that we no longer want to keep to ourselves.

Thank you for helping us spread the word.

A heartfelt thanks to Breakfast of Champions Co-Chairs, Nanie Flaherty and Amy Branch, the Breakfast Planning Committee, Duane Michelle Sims, Shawn Hennessey, Ilana Goldfus, Becca Buffum and Mara Lemos-Stein for organizing and helping run this memorable event.



The Pennsylvania Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program allows individual taxpayers, businesses, or corporations to redirect their state tax liability and support an Educational Improvement Organization (EIO), such as Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia.

Participants in this round of PA tax credits are asked to make a minimum contribution of $7,500 per year for two consecutive years, which supports student costs to participate in the program, academic innovation and operational costs at Breakthrough. In turn, participants receive a PA state tax credit for up to 90% of their contribution amount. For example, a contribution of $10,000 has a net cost of $1,000 for the donor; you may even be able to claim a federal charitable deduction on your out-of-pocket cost. This is truly a win-win for the donor and Breakthrough!

In 2022, we had several people step forward to take advantage of this great opportunity to support Breakthrough—providing over $200,000 in critical support for our program. At a cost of $4,000 per student, this gift enables 50 students to attend our tuition-free program for one year.

We are actively looking for individuals to participate in the upcoming cycle. Credits are available and allotted on a first-come, first-served basis and must be filled by April 2023. Learn how you can participate in this program by contacting Michelle Reyes Aleti, Communications and Development Manager, at

TAX CREDITS ARE AVAILABLE and allotted on a first-come, first-served basis and must be filled by April 2023. Contact Michelle Reyes Aleti to participate. 215-261-6702 2023 WINTER NEWSLETTER


Our program is only as strong as the contributions from our Breakthrough community. We appreciate gifts of time, talent, ties and treasure – each and every gift goes a long way to help us reach our mission to achieve equity and diversity in education.


Interview students and families in the Breakthrough application process

Volunteer at on-campus events such as Summer Kickoff and Celebration Day

Host a career day or office visit at your work site Volunteer at student recruitment, development and community engagement events such as fundraisers, Visiting Days, mailings and other school/community events


Follow us: @BreakthroughPHL

@BreakthroughPhilly @BTPhilly

Spread the word about Breakthrough — tell your family, friends and networks about our mission and the impact we’re making in Philadelphia!

Know a Breakthrough alum? Have them email us as we strengthen our alumni community of scholars and teaching fellows

Know a potential Scholar (middle schooler) or Teaching Fellow (college student) who may be interested in Breakthrough? Visit us at to start the process.


Share career & industry experiences as a Guest Speaker in our Career Conversations series

Bring your ideas, skills and expertise to help make our program a success — email us at to start the dialogue


Join our Annual Spring Soirée fundraiser on 4/27/23 at 6pm, hosted at the Germantown Cricket Club. RSVP and donate here!

Donate today and explore your company’s matching gift program

Become a corporate sponsor of our Annual Spring Soirée fundraiser on 4/27/23. Email Michelle Reyes Aleti, Communications & Development Manager, at for more information

In-Kind Donations. Whether it’s pizza or music lessons for our Scholars or Eagles tickets for a fundraiser, we welcome any and all in-kind gifts. Email us at



We are grateful for the support of funders, corporate partners and event sponsors who have joined the Breakthrough family since our Fiscal Year commenced in July 2022. We look forward to future partnerships and engaging the Philadelphia community more deeply to achieve equity and diversity in education.

listed in alphabetical order | * denotes a multi-year award


Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation*

Seybert Foundation

Annual Partners

Executive Level ($50,000+)

Gold Sponsor Spring Soirée (April 2023)

Bronze Sponsor Breakfast of Champions (October 2022)

Gold Sponsor Spring Soirée (April 2023)


Principal Level ($20,000)

Bronze Sponsor Spring Soirée (April 2023)

Supporting Sponsor Spring Soiree (April 2023)

Corporate Event Sponsors


We aren’t the only ones shouting from the rooftops about Breakthrough! Both our program and Executive Director Michelle Palmer have been featured in a number of media outlets recently, including:

The Philadelphia Citizen

January 2, 2023 | Guest Commentary by Michelle Palmer

“We can prioritize increasing the teacher pipeline and educating our students.”

You Oughta Know on WHYY-TV

October 6, 2022 | Hosted by Regina Mitchell

“Learn how Breakthrough Philadelphia is turning today’s students into tomorrow’s teachers.”


August 9, 2022 | By Mark Hostutler

“Teacher Residency Program Helps Lower Merion and Other Local School Districts Address Labor Shortage”

CBS NEWS Philadelphia

August 3, 2022 | By Marcella Baietto

“Education officials using 9-week teacher residency program to help bring more diverse educators into classrooms”

6abc Action News

July 22, 2022

“Teacher fellow training program aims to help Teacher shortage”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star

April 6, 2022 | By Special to the Capital-Star

“Innovative program for Philly middle-schoolers preps them high school and beyond”




Francine Boone, Cornelius Brown, James Degnan, Abe Diallo, Jason Duckworth, Kevin Emancipator, Eugenie Flaherty, Robin Friedman, Jamal Hill, Sarita Malakar, Darren Spielman, Keino Terrell, Michelle Todd-Coleman, David Wade, V. Amanda Witts, David Zavitz, Laurena Zeller


Michelle Palmer, Executive Director

Michelle Reyes Aleti, Communications & Development Manager

Sue Chen, Recruitment Manager

Sakina Parks, Program Manager

EVENT 2023 DATE LOCATION Visiting Day (Tour Breakthrough Program) — RSVP here 3/4 @ 10am GFS Campus, Sharpless High School Fair for Scholars 3/4 @ 2:30pm GFS Campus, Hargroves Interview Days for Scholar Applicants 3/18 & 4/15 GFS Campus How to Prepare for High School Interviews 4/22 @ 2:15pm GFS Campus Annual Spring Soirée — RSVP here 4/27 @ 6pm Germantown Cricket Club Scholar Field Trip 5/6 Boston Consulting Group Philadelphia Office Spring School Year Program concludes 5/13 GFS Campus Summer program dates (Teaching Fellows) 6/12 - 8/11 GFS Campus Summer program dates (Scholars) — Apply now 6/26 - 8/4 GFS Campus 2023 WINTER NEWSLETTER

Inspiring Students. Developing Teachers. Together we are Breakthrough.

34 West Coulter Street, Philadelphia, PA 19144 (215) 261-6705

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