In 2000, Jessica Slade, a teacher with a master’s degree in Education Administration from the University of Texas, recognized a need in Central Texas schools. “Austin was becoming a beacon for economic development,” says Slade, “but it was striking to me that students who happened to be from low-income backgrounds were not able to benefit from Austin’s growth because they didn’t have the same educational opportunities as more affluent students had. This disparity did not sit right with me. I believe all students should have the opportunity to attend college, especially in an age where it is a mandatory qualifier for most industries.”
So, Jessica decided to make a change. Building on her experience launching a similar program in Fort Worth, Jessica threw herself into creating an Austin-based educational nonprofit that could fuel equitable access to higher education for under-represented students. She met with leaders of other non-profits, Austin ISD, the University of Texas, and community groups to learn about existing services and design a model that addressed the gaps. In 2002, Breakthrough Central Texas was born with Jessica at the helm as founder and executive director.
The initial class of Breakthrough Austin students in 2002 was just 41 students from six Austin ISD middle schools. These pioneers attended a six-week summer program at the University of Texas and then received support during the school year from case managers and tutoring from older student mentors. What began as a small program has evolved into a robust, 12-year model of year-round academic enrichment and support, paving the way to and through college for students who will be the first in their families to earn a degree. More than 220 Breakthrough students have now completed their collegiate journey, with nearly 3,000 more following in their footsteps. On average, 96 percent of Breakthrough students graduate high school on time and more than 91 percent enroll directly into college.
“College graduates not only earn more in their lifetimes, on average $1 million more than high school graduates,” says Slade, “but they are also more civically engaged, healthier, and more involved in their own children’s education. By creating first-generation college graduates, Breakthrough changes the trajectory not only for the students but for entire families and communities.”
What Jessica began has now blossomed into a movement that is transforming our city. Breakthrough Central Texas makes an astonishing 12-year commitment to walk alongside students on their journey to and through college. Students and their parents see Breakthrough Central Texas as an extension of their families, giving them that boost that they needed to get through their next test, study skills, or even just a bad day.
Breakthrough Central Texas now offers rigorous programs for students including summer camps at Austin, Manor and Del Valle Independent School Districts (ISD). The students are exposed to enrichment programs in science, math, English and more beginning in sixth grade. Breakthrough advisors are just a phone call away for students and their families. The organization has become vital for those first in their families to graduate college.
“It is incredible to witness the evolution of Breakthrough Central Texas from its infancy to today,” shares Slade. “Breakthrough has grown tremendously to serve more students and has only become stronger over the years—stronger in partnerships, outcomes, and culture. It’s exciting to see our graduates come back to Breakthrough now as staff members and volunteers, showing our younger students what is possible.”
Although Jessica stepped down from her staff position at Breakthrough in 2007, she remains involved as a volunteer and is tirelessly devoted to increasing education equity in Central Texas by serving on the board of other education non-profit organizations. In 2019, Jessica co-chaired the Breakthrough Challenge, a capacity-building campaign that will double the number of under-represented college graduates in Central Texas.
During the Breakthrough Challenge, Breakthrough Central Texas raised $10 million to double the number of under-resourced college graduates in Central Texas, by enrolling an additional 1,400 students. This growth will triple the number of Breakthrough college graduates, and allow the organization to build capacity to maximize the impact felt on the region. In addition, the Breakthrough Challenge allows for the creation of the Promise Fund, an endowment to ensure the organization can fulfill the 12-year commitment to all Breakthrough students and their families.
All of this was made possible by someone willing to challenge the norm. Jessica Slade sets the bar high and encourages others who see a problem to find a solution.
“Each of us has the power to make a difference,” offers Slade. “The opportunities are always present. It is up to us to pay attention and to have the courage to embrace change when needed. When we approach this work with purpose and joy, other people jump in to help and to carry the work forward. In this way, one person can make a monumental difference.”
About Jessica Slade
Jessica graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in American Studies and completed the M.Ed. program in Education Administration at the University of Texas in Austin. She serves as the Executive Leadership Officer of the Webber Family Foundation. Currently the foundation focuses its investments on closing the gap between proficiency and potential for lower-income youth, with an emphasis on early childhood education, out-of-school time enrichment programs, and high-performing charter schools.
Jessica also serves on the boards of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School (Campus Committee) and MindPOP (Governance Committee Chair). Her previous leadership experience includes:
- Board member of Salvage Vanguard Theater
- Co-Chair of Austin ISD’s Performing Arts Center Naming Committee (Superintendent’s appointee)
- Founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough Central Texas
- Founding Chair and Steering Committee Member of Central Texas Education Funders
- Founding Director of Breakthrough Fort Worth
- Founding Executive Director of the Webber Family Foundation
Want to read more about Creating the Breakthrough?
Read Jessica Slade’s feature in the Austin American Statesman here.