Board decision to terminate Breakthrough support ignites controversy in SCDS community

(Photo used by permission of Adolfo Mercado)
Former Breakthrough teacher Vanessa Previsic, ’16, surrounded by some of her Breakthrough students.

Ever since the Board of Trustees announced its plan to terminate support for the Breakthrough program on Aug. 14, former Breakthrough students, teachers and donors have been showing their feelings of sadness, reminiscing about their days in the program and making plans to campaign against the Board’s decision.

However, other parents say they support the Board’s ability to make a tough decision for the good of the school.

SCDS Breakthrough director Adolfo Mercado said that he has received several phone calls and messages with people crying about the news.

He also said a Breakthrough student attending SCDS came into his office panicked that she would have to leave the school because she was unsure if her scholarship would be upheld. Mercado assured her that SCDS would honor her scholarship until graduation.

“I’m sad,” Mercado said. “I’m really, really sad. In the past 12 years my professional identity has been aligned with the Breakthrough community and Country Day. I’ve been really trying to get into the larger community trying to educate them about the Breakthrough program, and to have all that work abruptly finish is sad.

“We promised to support Breakthrough students throughout high school, and we can’t do that anymore. I don’t like feeling like a liar, and I hope they will understand that it wasn’t my decision.”

On Aug. 15, former chemistry teacher Michael Covey emailed a letter to the SCDS community with an attachment to a “Save Breakthrough” petition. In his letter, Covey encouraged people to voice their opinions of the decision, write to the Board of Trustees and sign the petition.

Jamie Nelson (former member of the Summerbridge Advisory Board), Laura Steele Monahan (former director of Breakthrough and current middle-school teacher) and Jennifer Lopez, ‘04 (former Breakthrough teacher and student) also signed the letter.

Covey said that he created the petition because of the important service Breakthrough provides for both SCDS and Sacramento.

“It’s impactful like almost nothing else at Country Day,” Covey said. “It literally changes lives.”

Covey became a mentor teacher in 1999 after seeing how the program was “a win-win for everyone involved.” Since then, he and his wife, former Country Day middle-school teacher Jackie DeLu, have donated to Breakthrough.

Nelson said that he signed the petition because he does not want Breakthrough’s vital mission to be abandoned.

“I feel that  Breakthrough’s mission to empower and inspire not only its students but the high-school and college students that teach them has been and should continue to be the living expression of one of the core values of our school – that is, the habit of helping,” Nelson said.

Breakthrough student senior Kaeleigh Valverde said that the petition has given her and her Breakthrough and SCDS friends hope.

Former Breakthrough teacher Carter Graham, ‘94, said that parents have great strength in these kinds of situations and encourages them to speak up through this petition.

“If there is any way for the current parents to publicly get behind Breakthrough, that would be very powerful,” Graham said.

Five days after being sent out, the petition had amassed about 400 signatures, and the Board had received about 200 letters, according to Covey.

(Photo used by permission of Mercado)
Each summer seventh-graders would visit UC Davis with the Breakthrough program. Director Adolfo Mercado said that for most students, this is their first time on a university campus.

Covey said that the letters range from Breakthrough students and alumni explaining how their lives have been changed for the better to former student teachers remembering how the excitement of Breakthrough teaching resulted in their own teaching careers to SCDS students saying that Breakthrough students make the school a better place.

Some SCDS parents wrote that part of the reason they enrolled their children was the presence of the program, Covey said.

Mercado said Covey notified him of his intention to create the petition before sending it out.

“It’s humbling to see the community’s support for Breakthrough,” Mercado said. “It solidifies the 12 years of work that I’ve done. I’m excited to see the community rally for the program.”

Covey said that on Monday, Aug. 22, a portion of the committee responsible for the petition will sit down with the Board of Trustees “to generate a solution of how to create a healthy Breakthrough program at Country Day.”

He acknowledged that it is unlikely that an immediate solution will be found; however, in the coming weeks and months, both groups will work to understand each other’s positions and “find a solution we can all live with.”

Kelley Taber, ’84, president of the Board of Trustees, said that the Board is meeting with Breakthrough’s long-term supporters “to help them understand all the factors that led to the Board’s decision and provide information that will help them assess the feasibility of creating an independent, self-sustaining program.”

Gail Graham, Carter Graham’s mother and the president of the Board of Trustees from 1987-89, also responded to the decision by emailing a lengthy letter to the Board.

Graham was the one who introduced former headmaster Dan White to Heather Hughes, who would become the first Breakthrough Sacramento director, and to the program in 1993 when her daughter worked as a teacher at the Breakthrough program at University High School in San Francisco.

In her emailed letter, Graham said that she was surprised that the Board did not reach out to long-time supporters such as herself before terminating the financial support.

“Funding is hard – there are and have always been challenges that obscure the opportunities,” Graham said in her letter.

“But in this situation you go to those who are passionately committed, knowledgeable about the model and have demonstrated support in the past to help solve the problems.”

Graham also wrote that she was not a recipient of the emailed letters Taber and Mercado sent to announce the closing of the program, or a recipient of verification that her $10,000 donation to Breakthrough in late July had been accepted. She added that other donors have written to her with similar problems with their donations not being acknowledged.

Graham also said that after being forwarded Taber’s emailed letter, she noticed that the amount that Taber said the school had invested in Breakthrough included private donations from SCDS families to Breakthrough.

“This representation suggests to me, and to others, that the presenter(s) is/are biased against the program, inferring that this lumped together revenue could in fact be redirected to other SCDS programs,” Graham said.

“Obviously this is a distortion of reality and the true costs of the program.”

(Photo used by permission of Mercado)
Former Breakthrough teacher Garrett Kaighn, ’14, leads two Breakthrough students through a frog dissection. Mercado said that Breakthrough students especially love labs.

Lopez agreed with Graham’s claims and said that the provided numbers don’t portray the reality.

“It seems that if you are associated with SCDS, your donation is lumped in with the school donation,” Lopez said.

Taber said that the funding she mentioned in her letter came from the SCDS budget and donations from parents, alumni, grandparents, employees and other friends of the school.

Taber said that in her letter, she did not mention that the school also gave services that are “conservatively” valued at over $170,000 and $200,000 worth of full scholarships to high-school Breakthrough students through the financial aid budget annually.

“If (parents) had not been needed to keep the Breakthrough program running, there is no question these resources could and would have gone to fund other important needs of the school, including teacher salaries, increased services for students and updating existing and building new facilities,” Taber said.

Recalling her years as Board president, Graham said that she is aware that “(SCDS) has a history of solving tough problems.”

To raise funds for scholarships for Breakthrough students (then called Summerbridge), Graham began Classics, a used-clothing store at the corner of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Watt Avenue, run by parent volunteers. SCDS families donated used clothes, and all of the proceeds went to the Breakthrough scholarship fund.

Carter said her mother also brought food, secured funding from the county, convinced SCDS teachers of Breakthrough’s benefits, worked as an ambassador and held countless fundraisers.

“If there was something to be done, my mom did it,” Carter said.

Gail Graham also wrote her Stanford University master’s thesis on Breakthrough in 2005 and interviewed members connected to the program.

Graham concluded her emailed letter by asking the Board to take more time considering their decision.

“The grit and grace these remarkably talented, tenacious and successful Breakthrough kids have brought to SCDS, plus the awakening of personal power inspired by the unprecedented responsibility the young teachers assume as mentors, cultivate lifelong advocates for the value of education and social justice and changes minds and lives,” Graham said in her letter.

“These core values of an SCDS education are synergistically embodied in the Breakthrough curriculum.”

After hearing about the Board’s plan to do away with Breakthrough from her older brother Joey, ’03, (also a Breakthrough student) Lopez began phoning everyone who had connections to Breakthrough operations for more information.

“I was incredibly shocked, saddened and angered that the people who are 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 Monahan, who helped to shed some more light on the situation, according to Lopez. Since they first started talking, the two have been keeping each other updated on meetings with new headmaster Lee Thomsen and notifying concerned people of the decision.

Lopez said that when she first spoke with Thomsen, he didn’t have many answers, but was “very transparent and forthcoming,” and said that he would get back to her.

“He’s been very good about looping me in,” Lopez said. “He’s been trying to gather as many people together to hear their perspective.”

On Aug. 16, a group of high-school Breakthrough students created the Instagram account bringbackbsac.official. The account’s bio states that their mission is to bring the Breakthrough community together to get the program back.

The account encourages their 104 followers to post pictures of Breakthrough with the hashtag #BringBackBSAC and promises to repost pictures of good quality.

On Aug. 17, the creators (Leslie Segura, Vincente Gonzalez, Abraham Aguilera, Valverde, Verna McKinney, Ivan Hueramo, Liana Gibson, Bryana Castillo and Tyra Abram) had lunch and discussed plans to expand their campaign.

Hueramo, a junior at John F. Kennedy High School, said that the account has received nothing but support from alumni and teachers whom he hasn’t heard from in years.

(Photo used by permission of Mercado)
Breakthrough students in front of a mural on a college visit.

“We wanted to be more vocal on how Breakthrough has affected hundreds of kids, and the account has been a great platform for that,” Hueramo said.

Hueramo, who obtained one internship at City Hall and another at Crocker Art Museum through Breakthrough, said that he was devastated after hearing the news.

“I started thinking about where my class (and I) would have been if we (hadn’t attended) Breakthrough,” Hueramo said. “But right now, I’m feeling optimistic as we have a huge backing in our struggle to keep this program running.”

Some of the creators of the Instagram account are seniors, like McKinney, who attends John F. Kennedy High School. These seniors will no longer be applying to colleges with Breakthrough’s college counselling as planned.

Hueramo said that it will be a huge loss for Breakthrough students who for the most part are first-generation college-bound students.

“Not having Breakthrough means I won’t have someone in my ear constantly feeding me college information,” McKinney said.

“Many (Breakthrough students) come from a household in which English is not the first language,” Hueramo said.

“These kids have no resources in their home as their parents did not have these opportunities or privileges. Breakthrough was there to help kids in these situations.”

McKinney said that while the group is in contact with representatives from SCDS, they believe that Board members have not been giving them the full story.

“We figure (that) there is nothing they can do for us, so we hope to take matters into our own hands,” McKinney said.

The group is speaking with educational and youth directors, who they hope will solicit new sponsors to the program.

Hueramo said the group also plans on making a collection of stories from the photo entries they are receiving from Breakthrough alumni, students, teachers and volunteers.

However, while many Breakthrough supporters and program members push against the decision, other SCDS parents have praised the Board of Trustees for making a tough call.

Taber said that the Board has received many letters from parents pleased with the decision.

According to Taber, every parent who has contacted the Board has been supportive of the Board.

“There is tremendous, albeit quiet, support of the Board’s decision from current families here at SCDS,” Taber said. “And parents have shared they will not be voicing their opinion in fear of retribution from faculty who do not share their views.

“Frankly, some parents were upset when they learned in my letter about the large amount of financial support the school had provided to support this program when they are struggling to afford the tuition and keep their students at the school.”

Taber said that those parents are glad that the school will be able to devote more funds to raising faculty salaries and improving student services.

Taber said that the decision to cut Breakthrough was made after a detailed examination of Breakthrough’s viability.

(Photo used by permission of Mercado)
Breakthrough students and teachers outside of Wells Fargo Pavilion, where the summer Music Circus takes place. After Lara Kong, ’14, learned that many Breakthrough students had never been to the theater or seen a musical, she raised money for the students to attend Music Circus productions for a few years.

She said that the review of Breakthrough’s financial impact on the school by the Executive Committee of the Board began in 2014. The Board looked for ways to lessen the deficit caused by the program by seeking outside donations she said.

That year, Tucker Foehl, assistant head of school was also given the task of increasing the visibility and financial support for Breakthrough, Taber said.

However, the Board found that large companies and foundations could not fund Breakthrough in most cases because the program was not its own 501(c)(3) corporation, meaning it was not a separate legal entity and did not have a separate 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit status with the IRS.

“The program needed to be incorporated with a separate board of officers and advisory committee responsible for raising the necessary cash donations every year,” Taber said.

When the Board looked to make Breakthrough its own 501(c)(3) under SCDS, Taber said that they found that not only was it impossible, but that SCDS was outside of its original purpose, which is to operate a private PK-12 independent school.

Taber said that when the program was brought to SCDS in 1994, Breakthrough should have been formed and managed as a separate entity.

Therefore, Taber said in October, a Breakthrough sub-committee of the Development Committee was created. The committee met every two weeks to secure outside funding through grants, private foundations and corporations, fundraising materials and a separate website for Breakthrough with a donation portal.

In March, Taber said, the committee strengthened its efforts to attain Breakthrough funding after being told that Breakthrough’s student population would be cut in half.

That spring, the committee found that the program could not be run without a significant deficit, so a new subcommittee was formed and began to study the feasibility of maintaining the school’s partnership with Breakthrough and alternatives to the program, Taber said.

In their research, the committee found that SCDS was the only school providing substantial financial support. Other schools provide only their facilities, while the program is financially self-sustaining.

“It was never envisioned that the host school would provide the bulk of the program funding or day-to-day administration,” Taber said.

In June, the subcommittee recommended that the program be discontinued. Taber said that Mercado asked for the announcement to not be made public until the end of the summer program out of respect for the enrolled students and teachers.

Taber said that it was hard letting the program go because she was a member of the Board of Trustees that voted to partner with Breakthrough, chaired the Strategic Plan Committee that created goals for Breakthrough and donated to the program with her family.

“My long history with and affection for the program made the Board’s decision especially difficult,” Taber said. “But as a trustee whose fiduciary duty is to ensure the long-term viability of Sacramento Country Day School, it was clear the Board had no other option.”

However, Taber said that the Board would be open to hosting an independently run program on campus if SCDS is not involved in funding or administration.  Breakthrough supporters would have to form an independent 501c3 corporation with its own dedicated board of directors and reliable source of funding, according to Taber.

“There is no reason why a group of loyal supporters could not create their own separate legal entity and apply for tax-exempt status as their own non-profit,” Taber said.

However, Taber said that she expects that the new board would have to raise a minimum of $300,000-$400,000 annually.

Jennifer Scott, mother of senior Mac, freshman Spencer and sixth-grader Mitchell, said that she is proud that the Board had enough courage to make an “unpopular but necessary” financial decision.

(Photo used by permission of Mercado)
Breakthrough students take a break in between classes at a table in the SCDS freshman quad.

Scott said that she remembered speaking with a woman whose sister attended SCDS on a Breakthrough scholarship.

“She spoke with such pride and was so very appreciative and cognizant of the opportunity that was being provided to her sister,” Scott said. “It made me proud to be a member of such a generous community.”

Scott said that she is pleased that scholarships will continue to be awarded even if the program is canceled.

Gary Jakobs, Taber’s husband and father of senior Zane and sophomore Nate, said that while he was saddened by the news, he came at it from the perspective of a business owner.

“(I am) responsible for the overall welfare of my employees and clients,” Jakobs said. “I have often been faced with difficult decisions, some of which I know will be unpopular.

“The decisions may be as simple as cutting funding for office supplies or employee benefits because we have a business downturn, or as complex, and extraordinarily difficult,  as reducing the number of my employees because we are facing major economic challenges.”

Jakobs said that he is confident the Board made their choice while keeping the best interests of the faculty and students in mind and that SCDS is lucky to have such a Board.

Other parents, like Lokesh Sikaria, father of Saachi, ‘16, and junior Smita, are disappointed, although they say they trust the Board’s action.

“I thought very highly of Adolfo and the Breakthrough program.,” Sikaria said. “I am sure other more important priorities necessitated this action.”

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said that while she supports all the positive change Breakthrough has made, she understands the difficulty in Breakthrough relying on one source for the majority of their funding.

This parent has also had experience fundraising for several non-profit organizations.

“The long-term viability of  a nonprofit requires that you diversify your financial support,” she said. “And while this can be a challenge, it is a commonly accepted professional and fiscally responsible way to operate a successful nonprofit.”

Mercado’s last day as an SCDS employee was Aug. 19. He said that two SCDS students had asked if he would continue advising the Latinax and MOGAI clubs, but Mercado said that his responsibilities would have to be picked up by others.

He said he is unsure if Breakthrough Sacramento will seek a new location or partner school.

But he said he will continue in this line of work.

“This is really my passion,” Mercado said.

“Sometimes I wish that we had been able to do more,” he added. “But we’ve been able to do something that no one else in Sacramento was doing. I got a lot of regular reminders of the impact we were making because alumni would come back with their successes.

“I’m going to take all of those very good memories with me.”

Valverde said that Breakthrough’s loss will be felt across the school.

“Breakthrough was a part of Country Day, and now that it’s not, it seems like a part of the school is missing,” Valverde said.

By Sonja Hansen

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