Breakthrough Twin Cities: For those who commit, a leg up toward college

Breakthrough Twin Cities students celebrate their accomplishments at their annual Graduation Gala.
Photo By: Breakthrough Twin Cities

Decorated lockers and floors, sparkling with glitter, greet visitors to Breakthrough Twin Cities. Newcomers instantly feel welcome.

After all, it’s important that the program’s new crop of students enjoy their surroundings as they learn about the realities of preparing for college.

Breakthrough recruits students from St. Paul public schools during their sixth grade year and enlists them in a six-year college prep program that parents and students must commit to by signing a contract.

Translation: “We’re not just watching TV all summer long,” said Caitlin Burkes, a 16-year-old Harding High School student and Breakthrough participant.

“We work one-on-one with students to ensure that they have extracurricular activities and that they’re really setting themselves up for success to get accepted to the college of their choice,” said Catrice O’Neal, Breakthrough’s former student service coordinator.

A group photo of future collegians who’ve come through the Breakthrough system.
Photo By: Breakthrough Twin Cities

For more information about Breakthrough Twin Cities, call (651) 748-5504 or visit

“We look for motivation and excitement about the academic process and being committed to going to college.”

Breakthrough is specifically designed for students of color or from single parent households. During the program, students build their college knowledge, visit college campuses and practice public speaking skills. This leads to more emotional skill development and readiness in both their professional and personal lives, O’Neal said.

“Beginning in middle school through to high school graduation, you’re creating an overarching structure that gets them thinking about college access and readiness,” she said. “It’s about that access to programming and the intensity of college counseling throughout their time here.”

Though their students have experienced hardships, Breakthrough gives them hope that the value of education will allow them to become successful in life. O’Neal said some students have gone to schools like Princeton and Stanford.

Kaitlyn Campbell, a junior at Cambridge High School, has worked her way through the program to become a teaching fellow. Now, she can pass on her knowledge of Breakthrough to students who are starting out as sixth graders—just like she did.

Campbell also used to be involved in Trio and Avid programs that are designed to help low-income and first generation Americans enter college. However, it wasn’t a “constant in her life” like Breakthrough.

“You’re here six weeks out of the summer, and every month for a Saturday session,” she said. “It’s a lot more involved with you.”

Breakthrough Twin Cities is part of a national and international organization that also helps kids overcome troubles and hardships. The lead of older students passionate about education helps guide its principles. The program also hosts three sites, two in St. Paul and one in North Minneapolis at Northside Achievement Zone.

Campbell’s favorite part of the program is “Breakthrough culture … and all the decorations on the hallway for Friday events we have.”

It always comes back to feeling welcome, she said.

“This program sticks to your commitment, and you need to be dedicated for it,” Campbell said. “You can’t just ‘kind of’ want it. You have to give it your all.”

ABOUT THE AUTHORUbah Salad headshot

Ubah Salad is a senior at Ubah Medical Academy. Her story on Breakthrough Twin Cities is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.

Their stories are centered on youth organizations in the metro area that are cultivating the “next generation” of leaders. Click here to read more from ThreeSixty’s summer camp series.