Spotlight Exclusives

Summer by Summer, Horizons Works to Change the Trajectory of Kids’ Lives

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

On the last day of the summer program at Holy Innocents Episcopal School a few weeks ago, children splashed in the pool at Wills Park north of Atlanta.

For six weeks they’d been swimming, taking field trips, hearing mystery readers — and beefing up their math and reading skills.

It looked a lot like fun and games, but the program was designed with a lofty goal — to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor kids.

As Vera Woods, academic director of the program at Holy Innocents, told parents at the start of the summer: “The goal is to make sure your children don’t lose what they’ve learned in school over the summer.”

We want them to “go back to school ahead of where they were,” she said.

Holy Innocents is an elite private school in Atlanta. But in the summer, it’s one of nine sites for Horizons Atlanta, a program that works intensively with over 800 kids who don’t have the privileges of money and enrichment activities.

Horizons served nearly 6,000 kids this past summer at 59 locations in 19 states and the District of Columbia. At Holy Innocents in Atlanta, many speak English as a second language. Some are children of parents who moved from the poorest states in Mexico and have limited education themselves. Others are African-American children growing up in a city that has the second widest academic achievement gap in the nation between black and white students after Washington, D.C.

“Our overall goal is to close the opportunity gap for children of underserved communities,” said Alex Wan, former Atlanta City Council member and now executive director of Horizons Atlanta. “We want to change the trajectory of their lives.”

Can the summer program really make a big difference?

The crux of the problem

The main predictor of academic achievement in the United States is income. The children of families in poverty do less well in school on average and are far less likely to attain college degrees.

Back in 1997, Karl Alexander and two other researchers at Johns Hopkins University traced academic gaps between rich and poor students to the differences in their summer experiences. While the school year had an equalizing effect on children’s achievement, low-income kids dropped behind in the summer. These findings galvanized summer learning efforts and the “summer slide” became a concern.

Low-income kids lose two to three months of academic skills in the summer, compared with their more-affluent peers, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Horizons Atlanta, on the other hand, sees the children in its program gain — instead of lose — two to three months of skills. Figures from Horizons National show a high school graduation rate of 97 percent.

The program has specific ingredients intended to make that difference.

“Every aspect is intentionally designed,” Wan said.

“It’s a free six-week program … but it’s not just six weeks,” he said. The goal is to have students attend each summer from the start of first grade to the start of ninth grade.

About 80 percent of the children do return each year, according to Horizons Atlanta.

The program is located on private school and college campuses, using the resources of the host institution as well as funds from local philanthropy. On these campuses — including Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, and Woodward Academy — children become familiar with institutions that might have seemed out of reach to them.

Each Horizons site partners with one to three nearby public schools that have a high proportion of students in poverty. Principals, counselors and instructional coaches at those schools refer children to the program, generally children who are not performing at grade level and who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The Horizons site director contacts the families and makes decisions about who can best benefit from the program, because demand is higher than the space available.

Certified teachers work with students on math and reading, and students are exposed to new places and people through field trips. In addition, every child learns to swim.

Building confidence

Greer Powell has been the site director for Horizons at Georgia State University for four years. During the school year, she’s a teacher at Grady High School in Atlanta.

“We build a relationship with families,” she said of the Horizons program.

At the start of the summer, children take an assessment test, which is repeated at the end.

“The children I’ve worked with … we can look back at the numbers and say, ‘This is where they were and this is where they are now,’” she said.

The staff ratio is one adult to five children. A reading specialist at each site works with kids who have the greatest need, Powell said.

“We know where the students are and where they need our help. Most of our students come to us with a deficit,” she said. “Two-thirds are below grade level.”

It’s a low-income population, she said. “No one’s filling their bucket with enrichment activities. We work to close that gap.”

“We empower young people with so many lifelong skills,” she said. “It’s not like a school.”

Guest speakers visit, and lessons are active. The hands-on activities reinforce academic skills, Powell said. “We get down on the floor with them,” she said.

Home Depot employees led a woodworking project with the kids. Volunteers from the financial services firm Deloitte brought paint and canvases for artwork. Students visited the Edgewood Community Garden where they learned about composting, made butter and then used the butter to prepare bruschetta.  Other field trips included the Georgia Aquarium, Fernbank Museum of Natural History and an Atlanta Dream basketball game.

Swimming is an important ingredient, according to Horizons Atlanta.

“They come afraid of the water. Few come with swimming skills,” Powell said. Learning to swim brings a gain in confidence.

“We can see that in the swimming pool. We see that in the classroom — the confidence.”

As a result, “we can push them more” on the academic side, she said.

Back at school

When the children return to school in the fall, teachers know which ones have been to Horizons Atlanta, said Woods, the academic director at Horizons at Holy Innocents.

“I learned to swim! I learned to jump off the diving board!” they tell their teachers, Woods said.

She recently retired as a kindergarten teacher at High Point Elementary in north Atlanta. For 19 years, she’s worked with Horizons during the summer. The program encourages thinking and questioning, she said.

“We plant the seeds of asking ‘why,’” she said. “We encourage a sense of wonder.”

Woods believes the program strengthens children’s sense of themselves.

When children return to school in the fall “teachers realize those kids are really determined,” she said. “The summer experience will carry on.”

During the school year, Woods organizes a “Saturday school” once a month for the students who attend the Horizons at Holy Innocents summer program.

“Our main goal to the Saturday programming is to keep the kids and families connected [to Horizons],” she said.

About 820 kids attended Horizons Atlanta this past summer. Compared with the number of kids in poverty in the city, that’s a drop in the bucket.

Can an intensive summer program reliant on private funding be the answer for all those kids?

Wan acknowledges the challenge.

“The need out there is still so great that we need a whole array of academic year supports and after-school and summer programs,” he said.

“Our program is very scalable. That’s the beauty of our program,” he said. “Give us time.”

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta who frequently writes about youth issues for Youth Today. She has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Al Jazeera America, and she was formerly a digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity initiative featuring reported journalism as part of our effort to illuminate news and trends in the field to
promote a bipartisan dialogue.



« Back to Spotlight Exclusives