In the “Welcome Back, Breakthrough series,” former BSAC teachers recall their favorite memories of their time at Breakthrough.
Whitney Gorton, ‘04, worked in the summer program in 2003, 2005 and 2006, mentored the history program, and is now an English teacher at The Latin School of Chicago, an independent school. Next is Jennifer Lopez,‘04.
Whitney Gorton says that the reason she participated in Teach For America, worked at Title I schools for the last eight years and now teaches at The Latin School of Chicago is her experience with Breakthrough.
Gorton first became aware of the program through her mother, history teacher Sue Nellis. In the summer, Nellis housed Breakthrough teachers, whom Gorton described as “always super busy and interesting.”
Nellis also mentored Breakthrough teachers, worked on the Board of Breakthrough, and interviewed students and teachers for program admittance, along with a variety of other tasks.
“One morning, she got a call from another volunteer,” Gorton said. “The school bus had been broken into, and all the windows had been smashed. The volunteer said, ‘We still have to get the kids to school!’
“So she and some other supporters drove out to the kids’ neighborhoods and brought them in.
“There was so much trust in these strangers to pick up the kids because it was so important that the kids got to school.”
In 2003, Gorton applied to teach eighth-grade U.S. History for the program because she thought it would be “fun.”
Gorton’s favorite event was the end-of-summer “Celebration,” when students would showcase their talents by acting, singing, dancing or reading poetry. One year, some students in Gorton’s class sang the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which she had taught during the summer.
“Seeing them work so hard for something and watching it come to life in front of you was phenomenal,” Gorton said.
Everyone with connections to the Breakthrough program was invited to attend the potluck before as well.
But these silly, fun events would turn out to be deeply meaningful for Gorton.
“It changed my life.” Gorton said. “I never would have wanted to be a teacher. It was just something my mom did. Then I realized what kind of impact I had.”
Gorton said that watching her students be accepted into Country Day on scholarships and later into colleges signaled to her that “this was so much bigger than anything I had ever done.”
But Gorton’s helping Breakthrough students was not a one-way street. She said that through her symbiotic relationship with students, she learned a lot, and her mother agrees.
“Whitney always knew how fortunate she was to be born into a family that was able to give her (the) opportunity to live a life of relative privilege predicated on middle-class values and birth into a particular race, but teaching in Breakthrough brought that home to her in a flesh-and-blood way when she taught bright and enthusiastic students in BSAC whose lives were significantly different from hers,” Nellis said.
“After her first of three years of teaching in the program, she knew she needed to spend at least a portion of her life to level the playing field for these well-deserving students.”
Similarly, while teaching at Breakthrough, the differences in academic rigor between Country Day and public middle schools were made apparent to Gorton.
“(For students) Country Day seems so normal, especially (for) Lifers, like this is what education is supposed to be. But once you leave, you learn that this isn’t always the case, especially for kids from families of lower economic status.
“It just reminds you that it’s part of our job as Country Day students to extend to our community. That’s part of the reason why Breakthrough needs to be at Country Day.”
And that’s why Gorton maintains that the program never should have been cut off from SCDS.
Gorton said that her mother, who is a member of the Breakthrough Working Group, has routinely kept her updated on all things Breakthrough throughout their process of reinstating the program.
“It was just sort of a blip, and now it is back to what it should be. I know (the program) is going to look different, and it was a lot of work for a lot of people, but it couldn’t be Country Day without Breakthrough.
“It just wouldn’t make any sense.”
—By Sonja Hansen