OST Voices #14 by Mike DiMarco, Executive Director, Horizons Greater Washington
“Imagine if every young person in the District had a trusted adult who got to know them during the summer.”
We often think of summer as carefree time off for kids, but summer is actually an incredibly inequitable time for many young people. Instead of not advancing academically for three months, the trajectory for most students is losing three months of learning. The cumulative impact of that loss over time leads to incredible gaps in learning. Horizons Greater Washington enables our students to not only avoid summer slide but achieve summer learning gain, putting them back on top of their academic game when they return to school in September.
One of the elements that makes Horizons unique is our long-term commitment to our students. Young people enter our six-week summer program as rising first graders and return each summer up until they begin high school. Over those nine years, that amounts to over a year’s worth of high-quality, intensive, and engaging learning experiences on top of a typical public school education. Our 80% year-to-year retention rate demonstrates how much our families value this.
Throughout that time, students work every summer with exceptional teachers in excellent facilities. Horizons offers full-day classes in reading, language arts, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math); weekly field trips; and swimming lessons. It’s no surprise that Horizons’ model works: our whole child approach puts students in small classes with highly qualified teachers, which enables young people to receive individual attention.
Most families we serve are not native English speakers and many are new to the United States. To participate in our summer academies, students must be eligible for free- and reduced-price school meals. Families are asked to pay a nominal one-time registration fee–otherwise students’ participation in nine summers of programming is completely free. Horizons works to eliminate the achievement gap that both English language learners and students whose families have low incomes often face by removing the barriers to achievement present in our communities. Breakfast, lunch, snacks, school and art supplies, and round-trip bus transportation to and from our partner school locations are all included to ensure that students can fully participate.
This summer, Horizons expects to welcome 400 young people to our programs, which are hosted at the Maret School and St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in the District as well as Norwood School in Maryland. While the 270 students who will attend our DC sites come primarily from two feeder schools, Bancroft Elementary and HD Cooke Elementary, we will serve students from 46 different schools across the city. Last summer we had a waitlist of 26 students in the District and we are seeing increased interest from school partners and families this year. With additional funding, we could hire the necessary staff to serve these youth and ensure that they received the individualized attention and support that are hallmarks of Horizons’ program.
We understand that every kid needs a chance to play during the summer as well, and our focus on swimming offers that freedom and fun as well as added benefits. In our Summer Program, students swim three days each week for an hour, which includes 30 minutes of swim lessons and 30 minutes of free swimming. In learning to swim, students do more than master an important skill; they learn strategies for tackling fears and overcoming challenges. They gain self-confidence and resilience in and out of the pool. Swim lessons also introduce young people to a competitive sport and teach skills for future summer employment.
Swimming proficiency is also an important equity issue and safety measure. Just over half of Americans can demonstrate the skills essential for swimming survival. For low-income youth, the odds of becoming a strong swimmer are even lower. Nearly 80% of children in families with less than $50,000 in household income have low or no swimming ability, putting them at a higher risk of drowning. Horizons helps students overcome these odds.
While our summer program has successfully served District young people for more than two decades, we recognize that our students and families desire and deserve additional support throughout the school year. Horizons is currently working with parents–through focus groups conducted in English and Spanish–to design a Saturday Academy. This summer, we will involve our older students in the planning process to understand exactly what parents and students want and need during the school year. Our goal is to launch the Saturday Academy in the fall of this year. With more resources, we will be able to provide more opportunities to impact our students and their families year-round. Currently most of our students live in Ward 1 and Ward 4, and we hope to expand across the District as we know demand for summer programming is higher than ever throughout all eight wards.
Beyond just our own program, we would love to see more collaboration and integration between OST programs and schools throughout the city. For example, every teacher in Horizons’ summer programs writes a narrative evaluation of each student at the end of the summer. These descriptions of students’ strengths, passions, and challenges are sent to students’ principals to be distributed to their classroom teachers before school starts. Imagine if every young person in the District had a trusted adult who got to know them during the summer and then communicated with their teachers to help them continue to thrive during the school year. The best outcomes for young people come when OST programs and schools are working in concert with each other. To facilitate this, the District should consider creating an office dedicated to youth instead of focusing narrowly on the education that happens during the school year. We could better serve all of our young people when we think about them as whole human beings whose lives matter all year long. Focusing on the whole child experience is where OST programming shines, and how all of us should think about our youth.