"What we believe at Horizons is that all kids are our kids," says Lorna Smith, executive director of Horizons National. "The gaps of opportunity, technology, education and so on are creating a disparity in the country that's not healthy for any of us."
Smith spoke to NationSwell from inside a classroom at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. During the summer months, the school lends space to Horizons, a free summer school program for low-income children (preschool/kindergarten through high school) that combines academics with extracurricular activities. Its first chapter opened in 1964 at Connecticut's New Canaan Country School, and thanks to private schools and universities donating classrooms, the organization now operates 45 programs across 15 states and is rapidly expanding.
Horizons focuses on one major challenge in American education: the summer slide. Although studies find that low-income children learn at about the same rates as their more affluent peers during the school year, they often fall behind as they progress through school. The issue: During the summers, children in poverty are not exposed to as many enrichment opportunities, such as museum and library trips and computer time. That's because these activities have costs associated with them; plus, low-income parents often have less flexibility with their working hours than their wealthier counterparts.
As a result, academic skills regress, and the effects are cumulative. By fifth grade, low-income kids may be two to three years behind their classmates. And their graduation rate is much lower as well (60 percent versus more than 90 percent for affluent children), exacerbating the cycle of poverty and depriving these children from living up to their full potentials. Horizons keeps these students on track, boasting a 99 percent graduation rate for its participants; 91 percent go onto higher education.
"I think that the biggest thing the program offers kids are enrichment opportunities that they wouldn't experience living in the neighborhoods that they lived in," says Kevin Thompson, a former Horizons student who joined the program after the sixth grade. At the time, Thompson lived in a Stamford, Conn., neighborhood that was dangerous and economically disadvantaged, and his mother was in recovery for drug addiction. He believes that Horizons changed his life, citing the daily swimming lessons as a part of the program that helped him get his life together.
Thompson swam for his high school team and was a state-champion diver, which led to a diving scholarship at the University of Connecticut. After that, he continued his education, receiving a master's degree in educational leadership. Today, Thompson works at Horizons, running a high school program. His eventual goal? To run a Horizons chapter.
"This program is my heart," he says. "For me, it's really about seeing these kids strive for excellence."