Written by: Dawn Mason
Imagine this: A school system that was once labeled as a chronic under-performer in the basic fundamentals of learning now touts reading and math proficiency rates well above the National average. Imagine children who, despite their position within a society that brands them as underprivileged and socially and economically disadvantaged, succeeding in all that they do simply because they are given access to tools that allow them to open their eyes, look in the mirror and see nothing less than greatness.Breaking the cycle of gaps in education based on where one is born and raised is not an impossible goal but an achievable reality, and it is happening right in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.
On the information-packed website www.horizonsatlanta.org, Horizons Atlanta presents itself as a summer program designed to fill those empty days between school years with a “project-based educational model designed to fuel a life-long passion for learning, using a blend of high-quality academics with cultural enrichment and confidence-building activities.” The dedication of the leadership team, the goals and commitment of the National organization, and the allegiance of the host institutions, board of directors, volunteers, teachers and students, all contribute to this program making an unprecedented impact that continues well beyond the summer.
The Horizons organization has been in the Atlanta area since 1999 but the regional program has been a part of the city’s fabric since 2013. Mary-Kate Starkel, the Horizons Atlanta Center’s Director of Development who provides leadership, coordination, and strategy development for all of the regional fundraising needs, said they are finally at the tipping point of expansion. “We’re serving more and more students, and we’re now able to be a part of the conversation. We are able to say here’s what educational reform needs to look like in Metro Atlanta, and it has to include summer learning. We can now demonstrate what the summer component can do for children and their families and say August through May is just not enough.”
Horizons Atlanta attributes the program’s success to the strengths of their leadership, board, and partnerships. Members of the leadership team are personally invested in the program with each of them having direct experience in youth development, education, and the Atlanta community. Emily Brenner Hawkins, Executive Director, joined Horizons Atlanta in September 2016 to lead strategic growth. With knowledge of Atlanta’s non-profit and philanthropic communities, she previously served as Executive Director of Kate’s Club, an organization dedicated to empowering children and teens facing life after the death of a parent or sibling. Before that, she was Vice President of Programs for Leadership Atlanta, whose mission is to develop, connect, and inspire leaders to strengthen metro Atlanta’s communities. Matt Westmoreland, Program Operations Manager, is a former educator, now the District 3 Representative on the Atlanta Board of Education, where he serves as chair of Budget Commission and Legislative Liaison to the Georgia General Assembly.
While the center’s leadership, volunteers, and teaching staff are imperative to the success of the program, the true ambassadors are the Board of Directors. The impressive list of Board members includes the Brocks. Named the 2015 Atlanta Philanthropists of the year with donations over $1Million dollars to institutions of higher learning such as Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt University, and Emory University, Mr. Brock, recently retired CEO of Coca-Cola European Partners, and his wife Mary Brock, co-owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream are devoted supporters and have been a part of the Horizons Atlanta family since its inception. Mary Brock served as a board member for Horizons National, which led to John Brock becoming the board chair of Horizons Atlanta.
The Horizons model is rooted in partnerships. A host institution is a partner college, university, or independent private school that desires to get behind the program, give back to the community by way of offering space and resources, and to do so at no cost.The advantages to partnering are numerous. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars saved on facility costs, staff are and the commitment of the institution’s administration is demonstrative of the program’s sustainability. This strong and high-level support allows Horizons to accomplish more and gain access to additional resources at the host institutions.
The relationship between the host institution and Horizons Atlanta fosters an exceptional recruiting pool. While many of the staff are recruited from the public school system, others are recruited from the private and post-secondary host institutions.This mix of teaching staff ensures that the program is offering the highest caliber of educators that are relatable, diverse, and sensitive to the needs of the students and families.
Partnerships with private schools such as Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, Woodward Academy, and Atlanta International School, offer benefits to the students attending the host institution as well. Those that choose to volunteer make connections with students, assist with field trips, tutor, and teach swimming. High school students sacrificing their summers to become a volunteer with Horizons is a testament to the impact the children have on the student volunteers.
The model of working with colleges and universities is fairly new. With Atlanta being so rich in its higher education community, Horizons Atlanta has the most university partnerships across the Horizons National network. The program also affords college students the opportunity to serve as student facilitators. This helps support the program’s 5-to-1 student –to-teacher ratio while allowing the collegiate level students to gain hands-on experience.
Although the average participation of a student is 6 summers, the Horizons Atlanta program is offered as a 9-year continuum, Kindergarten through 8th grade; and a plan is set to pilot a high school program this summer moving Horizons Atlanta to a full Kindergarten through 12th grade model.“Over time, it’s a matter of setting expectations for students so that they see not only what they are capable of but what the world requires of them.
“Over time, it’s a matter of setting expectations for students so that they see not only what they are capable of but what the world requires of them. Here is significance in maintaining a student’s participation year after year because a big portion of what we do is work with families to make sure they have the resources necessary to support their children. We do things like prioritize siblings for enrollment and host workshops and seminars on topics such as the financial aid process for college and immigration and documentation issues as it pertains to children and post-secondary education. We’ve even offered these workshops entirely in Spanish. Also, middle school transition years are extremely critical from a child development standpoint so we want to keep them engaged while the fun changes in adolescence are happening. The longer we have students and families in our program, the stronger their commitment and better the outcomes,” Mrs. Starkel stated. Horizons’ students across the country that remain in the program throughout high school graduated at a rate of 99%in 2016. This is well above the latest National average of 82% according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With more than one-fifth of the Horizons National programs in metro Atlanta, expanding to include the high school component will prove extremely beneficial to the city’s participating students.
There is significance in maintaining a student’s participation year after year because a big portion of what we do is work with families to make sure they have the resources necessary to support their children. We do things like prioritize siblings for enrollment and host workshops and seminars on topics such as the financial aid process for college and immigration and documentation issues as it pertains to children and post-secondary education.
We’ve even offered these workshops entirely in Spanish. Also, middle school transition years are extremely critical from a child development standpoint so we want to keep them engaged while the fun changes in adolescence are happening. The longer we have students and families in our program, the stronger their commitment and better the outcomes,” Mrs. Starkel stated. Horizons’ students across the country that remain in the program throughout high school graduated at a rate of 99% in 2016. This is well above the latest National average of 82% according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With more than one-fifth of the Horizons National programs in metro Atlanta, expanding to include the high school component will prove extremely beneficial to the city’s participating students.
While typical classroom learning is a part of the programming for Horizons Atlanta, the model offers a much more flexible instructional method. Being outside of the school year, the program allows teachers to try out new tools, new resources, and new ways of capturing students’ attention while still driving home the core focus on literacy, science, and math. Combine a flexible instruction method with project based learning, field trips, physical activity and other extracurricular activities, and it is clear why the program becomes a mainstay with the participating families.
As if taking on childhood literacy wasn’t enough, Horizons Atlanta is also in the business of saving lives. Swimming is a part of Horizons Atlanta’s program in hopes of limiting the obstacles preventing underprivileged children of color from learning how to swim. Seventy percent of African-American and sixty percent of Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim according to the 2010 National research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.African-American children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their Caucasian peers according to the CDC.Horizon Atlanta’s commitment to the swimming component of their program culminates annually at a Horizons regional swim meet where students can experience a professional swimming environment and learn about opportunities for college scholarships in swimming.
Other areas of experiential education in the program are art, music, theater, robotics, field trips to cultural and art institutions, and touring businesses and science labs in an effort to provide students with the same exposure as their middle and upper income peers. This summer, 500 Atlanta Horizons students were special guests at the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream game. Having access to these experiences while learning onsite at a private school, college, or university allows the student to visualize themselves as a member of that community. By the time the student is ready to advance to the next chapter in their life, they will have a keen understanding of campus life; they will have been mentored by high school and college students; they will have traveled outside of their home environments; and they will set internal expectations higher than if they had never had these experiences.
All programs are tuition-free, six-week, eight-hour, high quality models. Efforts continue beyond the summer with specific components available by site. These could include after-school programs, additional support in math and reading, parent advocacy groups, and mentorships allowing students to build pro-social relationships outside of the family throughout the year.
Mrs. Starkel summed up why she and her colleagues are committed to Horizons Atlanta: “Any child in Atlanta deserves the things I’m able to provide to my daughter. Every child deserves the best that we have to offer them. Horizons Atlanta will continue to make one more seat available at a time until the whole community changes. That’s the end result. And with our team and our program, we will make it happen.”
Since launching in 1965, Horizons National has grown to serve17 states, and by 2018, Horizons Atlanta will have 2 additional sites and enough programs to serve 2000 students. Their efforts are closing the education gap and exposing students to what learning can be; engaging, fun and life changing. Imagine that.