FORT GREENE — When Leah Herrera was in sixth grade, she had never heard of the city's elite high schools, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.
That changed when Herrera won a spot in a rigorous after-school program run by the nonprofit Breakthrough New York, where she spent more than 80 hours preparing to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test.
After months of hard work, Herrera, who grew up in Bensonhurst and went to middle school in Coney Island, was one of just a couple hundred Latino teens across the city to ace the admissions test, earning a seat at the highly selective Brooklyn Tech.
"All the blood, sweat and tears were really worth it," said Herrera, 15, who is now a sophomore and returned to Breakthrough this year as a teaching assistant.
"I don't think I'd be at Brooklyn Tech without Breakthrough," she said. "I didn’t even know there was a test for these schools."
As politicians lament the lack of black and Latino students in the city's specialized high schools and call for changes to the admissions test to increase diversity, programs like Breakthrough's are taking action to give minority kids a boost. Breakthrough, which serves predominantly low-income black and Latino students, offers test prep, enrichment courses and tailored guidance on how to get into top schools.
Many of Breakthrough's 60 eighth-graders — split between sites at Fort Greene's Bishop Loughlin High School and the Town School on the Upper East Side — come from struggling middle schools, and they often aren't encouraged by their families or schools to excel, said test prep teacher Kenneth Ray.
"All students need equal amounts of encouragement," Ray said. "Sometimes students are not aware of how much capacity they have."
Tamiya Fowler, 12, a Springfield Gardens resident, has been trekking to Fort Greene twice a week to attend Breakthrough's two-hour test prep class, in addition to spending an extra two to three hours a day preparing on her own.
"I'm nervous," Fowler said last week, several days before taking the exam on Saturday. "But I do believe I can accomplish my goals. I’ve been doing extra pages in my SHSAT practice book.”
Fowler, an aspiring poet, said she is glad to have more support at Breakthrough's free program than she receives at the Expeditionary Learning Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she is in eighth grade.
“In school, my teachers aren’t always available to me, but here they always are,” she said of Breakthrough’s instructors, whom she has called or emailed at all hours of the day with questions.
Last year, about 28,000 eighth-graders took the Specialized High School admissions test and about 5,000 — or 18 percent — were accepted to one of the eight selective high schools. While 70 percent of public school students are black and Latino, just 5 percent of those admitted to specialized high schools last year were black and just 7 percent were Latino.
Breakthrough's students fare better than the citywide average, with 40 percent accepted to specialized high schools. The program is set to expand next year to a spot in The Bronx's Crotona Park.
In addition to applying to the specialized public high schools, Breakthrough's eighth-graders also try for admission to private schools and boarding schools, said program director Natalie Cox said.
Last year, a Breakthrough student who was one of seven black eighth-graders in the program to win admission to Stuyvesant also got into the Northfield Mount Hermon School boarding school in Massachusetts. He ended up going there instead, and he's now on the crew and ski teams.
"The power of a kid saying no to Stuyvesant — that's what kids of privilege get to do," Cox said.