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Expanding Our Horizons: Breakthrough Luncheon Celebrates Program’s Growth

Pooja Salhotra
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Carlee Marquez, Anahi Marquez,

Breakthrough students Carlee (left) and Anahi Marquez, both students at SJS, spoke about their Breakthrough experience during the luncheon on Monday, Feb. 25. (Photo: Pooja Salhotra)

Last April, 17-year-old Houstonian Michael Brown gained national media attention after he applied to 20 top colleges and was admitted to every single one with a full-ride. The Lamar High School graduate had a difficult decision to make about where to spend his next four years, but he didn’t always anticipate having these choices. Long before the college acceptance letters rolled in, Michael enrolled in Breakthrough Houston, an academic program that prepares high-potential, underserved students for competitive high schools and college admission. Michael credits Breakthrough, along with other enrichment programs and mentors, for helping launch him on a path to Stanford University.  

“If you asked Michael, he would say that Breakthrough was where he first learned he could choose his path,” Michael’s mother Berthinia Rutledge-Brown said during Breakthrough Houston’s 11th annual spring luncheon, held last Monday at St. John’s School’s Flores Hall. “I’m forever grateful to Breakthrough for expanding Michael’s horizons.” 

“Expanding our Horizons” was the theme of the luncheon, as the organization celebrated its upcoming growth. Starting this summer, Breakthrough Houston is tripling the size of its program, serving more than 650 underserved students and training more than 80 teachers by hosting summer programs at KIPP CONNECT and Gregory Lincoln Education Center in addition to at its original site at St. John’s School (SJS). 

Current Breakthrough students Carlee Marquez, a senior at SJS, and her younger sister Anahi Marquez, a freshman at SJS, also spoke during the luncheon to share their experiences with the program. 

Sue Sim, Randy Sim

West U residents Sue and Randy Sim were two of the Breakthrough Luncheon co-chairs. (Photo: Quy Tran Photography)

Carlee took the audience back to her elementary school experience, when she found the schoolwork to be too easy and boring. “I knew I wanted an academic challenge, but I didn’t know where to get it,” she said. 

“I remember you’d come home from school and sit on the couch reading books for hours,” Anahi said to her sister. “Mom would ask if you had any homework and you’d say ‘No, I finished it all at school.’ I could tell you weren’t reaching your full potential.” 

Once Carlee started the Breakthrough program, Anahi watched her older sister grow into a more confident and outgoing person, excited to share everything she learned and the people she met at Breakthrough. Watching Carlee inspired Anahi to join the program as well. 

Now, Carlee is preparing to start college at Swarthmore College, where she’s been given a full scholarship. She credits Breakthrough for helping her thrive academically. 

“Without the academic challenges and Breakthrough culture, I would never have gotten here,” she said. “Breakthrough helped me be the best version of myself.”

Scott McClelland

Scott McClelland, the president of H-E-B Food/Drug Stores, delivered the keynote address. (Photo: Quy Tran Photography)

At the end of the luncheon, Carlee and her sister joined other Breakthrough students along with program director Morris Nwogwugwu on stage to lead the attendees in the Breakthrough affirmation: “We are Breakthrough, and we commit ourselves, to hard work, dedication, respect, fun, and above all, excellence in learning. Gooooo Breakthrough!” 

The echoes of this call and response affirmation – stated loudly with bold, synchronized hand gestures – emanated throughout the hall. The message of the affirmation seems simple – work hard, be kind to others and enjoy the ride. And yet this simple message, instilled in Breakthrough students and teachers through daily recitation, is part of how Breakthrough has achieved tremendous success.

Ninety-nine percent of its students gain acceptance to a four-year college, and 94 percent of current Breakthrough Houston high school students are in a college preparatory high school. To achieve these results, Breakthrough offers an intensive summer program, where middle school students take rigorous courses and also learn about character traits critical for success – things like grit, hard work and respect. The program also offers Saturday morning classes during the school-year. The classes are taught by high school and college students to train and prepare the next generation of teachers. 

“[Breakthrough] doesn’t just work with students to allow them be successful, but they also are helping source an interest in teaching,” said keynote speaker Scott McClelland, the president of H-E-B Food/Drug Stores. “There’s an opportunity in TX and in the U.S. to bring back a culture of respect for being a teacher. So hats off to Breakthrough for everything they are doing.”

Read about School Buzz reporter Andrew Duong’s experience as a Breakthrough student here.  

  • Breakthrough luncheon

    The 11th annual Breakthrough Luncheon drew more than 400 guests and raised $238,000. (Photo: Quy Tran Photography)

  • Breakthrough luncheon

Breakthrough luncheon

The 11th annual Breakthrough Luncheon drew more than 400 guests and raised $238,000. (Photo: Quy Tran Photography)

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