UPPER EAST SIDE — With 33 other students in his sixth-grade class, Lower East Side resident Gabriel Lopez had little hope of getting extra time with his teachers.
The Specialized High School Admissions Tests were looming, so he sought the help of Breakthrough New York, a nonprofit tutoring program that offers tuition-free tutoring to low-income students.
Lopez joined the program in 2008 as a sixth-grader and has gotten homework help and test prep from it throughout his high school years at the Upper East Side's Town School.
But even after getting accepted into Columbia University six years later, where he's currently studying computer science, 19-year-old Lopez, a Lower East Side resident, said he still needed help managing his time and navigating through the financial aid process.
"While at Columbia, I definitely needed help with my financial aid process and figuring out how it works for college,” Lopez said. "Breakthrough was there to remind me of deadlines and made sure that I understood what information I needed to fill out all the forms. They’re always there and that's a resource for me."
Like in the case of Lopez, there's been a growing demand for students needing help past high school, which is why Breakthrough has decided to expand its program to their students who go on to college, according to Rhea Wong, the Breakthrough New York’s executive director.
"Our assumption was they’ll be fine in college, but we were finding out that once our students get into four-year colleges, they weren’t fine," she said. "Knowing their level of motivation and talent, we thought they could be doing much better.”
Breakthrough New York, which has centers in Fort Greene's Bishop Loughlin High School and at the Town School on the Upper East Side, hosts tutoring and academic counseling for students at least twice a week during the school year and intensively for six weeks in the summer free of charge. The program is highly competitive.
Breakthrough normally serves middle and high schoolers, but last year it started a pilot program extending services to college students.
The program checks on college students' progress in school at least once a month, gives advice on financial aid paperwork, networking, searching for scholarships and provides a tutor if grades start to slip.
The college students who are receiving help currently have already gone through Breakthrough’s middle and high school program and have been accepted into schools like Middlebury College, Columbia, Yale, Pace and Carnegie Mellon universities. But only 60 percent of them were graduating in a four- to six-year window, she said.
First generation, low-income students are at a higher risk for not graduating, Wong said.
It's also often the case that these students haven't had the opportunity to make connections and haven’t learned where to get the help they need. That isolation often makes them feel uncomfortable in college and beyond, said Betsy Kent, Breakthrough New York’s college success director.
“They don’t understand the idea of social networking,” she said. “In the program, their friends and teachers engage them to be a mentor and how to join clubs and start from the ground up. They teach them that a social network can be mobilized later on in college to find more interesting opportunities or afterwards.”
During the next few years, Breakthrough plans to form partnerships with companies to connect students with internships and jobs, so that students can speak, Kent said.
Through the extended program, Lopez said he is learning to interact with people older than he is and with people from different walks of life. He's going to networking events and speaking at Breakthrough panels, which has helped him build confidence, he said.
“It’s advocating for myself," Lopez said. "It’s something you can’t put on paper.”