Front-line Hero: Natalie Cox


On Breakthrough New York’s website, beneath a list of guilty pleasures including curly fries and Bravo TV, Natalie Cox describes why she cares about making “breakthroughs” happen for students: “We can equip students and future educators to be the change they wish to see in the world.” Cox, senior program director at Breakthrough, is in a unique position to help bring about that change.

Overseeing programs at Breakthrough, a nonprofit that provides mentoring for academically inclined, low-income middle schoolers, Cox helps lead an organization of students teaching other students. Volunteers and other staff members work tirelessly to inspire, mentor and educate students in order to get them to and through college, hopefully breaking cycles of poverty, and this process can become discouraging even for a dedicated staff.

“I deeply understand the challenges of being a front-line program person,” said Cox. “I did it myself, and I know what they are going through. It’s easy as a front-line program person to lose sight of what you’re doing.”

While Cox doesn’t refer to herself as a “front-line” person at Breakthrough, her colleagues regard her as an in-the-trenches manager. To inform her decision-making, Cox works closely with students and calls on years of her own teaching experience for guidance.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans during her senior year at Tulane University, Cox started volunteering at the only functioning middle school in the decimated city. She was inspired by the dedication of the students, teachers and parents who were risking their lives for education. “It really shifted my perspective of how I wanted to spend my day, how I wanted to spend the professional hours of my day,” she said.

After graduation, Cox joined Teach For America, teaching high school English for four years, three in California and one in New York City. In 2011, she joined Breakthrough as a site director and has grown with the program.

Since she joined, Breakthrough has expanded from one site to three, and last year, Cox spearheaded a substantial shake-up of the program. Breakthrough had previously guided students through high school, but only 59 percent of those students went on to graduate college. Even though that is well above the national average, Cox says, she and the rest of Breakthrough wanted to extend the program to see its middle school students go on to earn college diplomas.

And after the first year of the newly implemented pilot program, 100 percent of college-enrolled Breakthrough students were on track to return for another semester of school.

Cox says her larger managerial decisions, like extending Breakthrough’s programming, are informed by her days as a teacher.

“Her expertise as a teacher has crafted her ability to truly understand what excellent teaching and rigor looks like,” said Rhea Wong, Breakthrough’s executive director. “For Natalie, it's about the students first, and she relies on her years in the classroom to ensure we are making decisions with our students' well-being and success in mind at all times.”

Wong added that Cox, even with her important role as a team leader, still makes time to have lunch with students, volunteer at events and even mentor students when she can.

“I still make it a point to learn every single student’s name and meet as many of their families as I can,” Cox said. “I still want to have that personal connection with all of them.”

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