WELCOME BACK, BREAKTHROUGH: Jennifer Lopez, ’04, benefited from program’s extended family that allows students to ‘defy the odds’

(Photo used by permission of Jennifer Lopez)
The Lopez family – Joey (’03) their mother, Lizbeeth, their father, Jennifer (’04) and Christopher (’09) – attend Lizbeeth’s graduation from University of California, Davis, School of Medicine in 2016.

In the “Welcome Back, Breakthrough series,” former BSAC teachers recall their favorite memories of their time at Breakthrough.

Jennifer Lopez, ‘04, not only taught at Breakthrough in the summers from 2002-04, and founded Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano in 2005 but also attended BSAC as a student in the summers of 1998 and 1999. Lopez currently promotes education equity around the country and coaches principals and teachers.

After hearing about the Board of Trustees’ plan to do away with Breakthrough from her older brother Joey, ’03, Jennifer Lopez quickly began calling everyone who had connections to Breakthrough for more information.

“I was incredibly shocked, saddened and angered that the people who (were) the most critical stakeholders had not been informed sooner,” Lopez said. “I felt blindsided because the Board did this without engaging the folks who most love and support this program.”

The first person to pick up was former director of Breakthrough (and current middle-school math teacher) Laura Steele Monahan, who shed some more light on the situation, according to Lopez.

Monahan and Lopez immediately began alerting other supporters, such as the Sacramento City Unified School District, which Lopez had worked for, and fellow classmates, and arranging meetings between the Board, head of school Lee Thomsen and the already forming Breakthrough Working Group.

In those early meetings, the group discussed possible candidates for the executive director position and drafted letters of support.

Lopez said she defended the program so vigorously because she was worried about the remaining Breakthrough students enrolled at SCDS who no longer had a program designed to support and help them navigate their way to college.

In addition, she said that the program impacted her life – and the lives of her three siblings – tremendously.

“We can all pinpoint the moment our lives (Joey, Lizbeeth, and  Christopher, ’09,) changed,” Lopez said. “It was the day we started Breakthrough.”

Lopez said that she remembers when Joey first started the program and how he would come home every day and tell the family about the new things he learned, like the chemical reactions that go into making ice cream in science class.

(Photo used by permission of Jennifer Lopez)
Former director of Breakthrough Laura Steele Monahan and Lizbeeth Lopez take a picture together at Lopez’s graduation from University of California, Davis, School of Medicine in 2016.

“I was anxiously waiting and prayed a lot for the opportunity to be a part of this program,” Lopez said. “At that point, it was a no-brainer that everyone in our family would be a part of it.”

Lopez said that when she entered the program, she was extremely shy. But by the end, she had learned that her voice had power, and she was not the same student leaving.

“I see Breakthrough as an extended family, as the place where I was able to develop my leadership skills, which I use now,” Lopez said.

As a Breakthrough teacher, Lopez taught math, science and a Latin American studies elective.

Lopez said that she and all of her siblings wrote about Breakthrough in their personal statements when applying for college, financial aid and graduate school.

After graduating from Stanford University, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Business School, Joey is now finishing his residency in reconstructive plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins University. Lopez’s younger brother Christopher is working on cyber security as a computer science engineer for General Electric. Her sister Lizbeeth, a Swarthmore College and University of California, Davis, School of Medicine graduate, is finishing her residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As for Lopez, after graduating from Occidental College, she taught math for Teach For America. In her first year, she taught at a school where all students came from low-income families. When her class took the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), 100 percent passed, she said. Based on the school’s demographic, it was expected that only 50-60 percent would pass, according to Lopez.

When Teach For America asked to what she attributed her teaching success, her answer was simple: Breakthrough.

Lopez went on to work in the San Juan Unified School District, where she oversaw 14 charter schools and 76 principals and managed the spending of $33 million.

Today, Lopez trains principals and teachers as a leadership coach and advocates for education equity in Massachusetts, California, Colorado and Wisconsin. She said she teaches her principals many Breakthrough techniques such as making sure faculty members work as a team and maintaining high expectations for one another.

Lopez said that she is thrilled that BSAC has been brought back to life.

“It was humbling to witness the outpouring (of) support from Breakthrough staff, alums, students, former directors, long-time supporters and SCDS parents,” Lopez said. “I am forever thankful to the Breakthrough Sacramento Working Group, who worked tirelessly to reestablish Breakthrough as quickly as possible, (which was) no easy feat.

“Breakthrough is a life-changing program. It is through this program that low-income, first-generation students have been able to defy the odds.”

By Sonja Hansen

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