Broadening Students’ Horizons

“U-nique,” said teacher Anne Cyr to the eight children sitting in the reading lesson in a Country Day classroom in early July. “U-nique,” she repeated, and hands shot up to take a stab at spelling it. Cyr couldn’t have chosen a more apt word for the program enabling this summer phonics lesson.

Fourteen rising first graders from Martin Elementary School in the School District of Lancaster got a head start on the future, or at least a chance to catch up with the present, at Country Day’s six-week Horizons program, led by fifth grade teacher Meg Reed. Horizons is a national organization that partners with independent schools and colleges to help low-income students realize their academic potential.

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The participants’ parents applied for spots in March. The group comprised 14 students eligible for free or reduced lunch, two-thirds of whom tested at grade level while one-third tested below. Horizons’ chief aim is to help at-risk children avoid the “summer slide” of falling behind — or even further behind — their peers over summer vacation.

A recent LNP article about Horizons explained, “Education research has shown that children from low-income households lose more reading knowledge over the summer than their peers, according to the Education Writers Association.”

With a staff including Cyr, an elementary school teacher from Hempfield, Columbia Borough reading specialist Jen Horn, and a devoted group of Upper School volunteers, Horizons’ inaugural year was a resounding success, providing a solid foundation for the program’s growth in the coming years.

Horizons’ funding comes from grants and individual donations and is entirely separate from Country Day’s budget. The program is free for students.

Those students, who are just learning to read, and some at more advanced levels than others, averaged an 8-point increase in both of the language areas Horizons tested. Several students doubled their scores over the course of the six weeks. “It was really fantastic to see,” said Reed. “These kids grew, which was great, but had they not been here, they most likely would have gone backwards, so the difference is really pretty profound.” Research

Exercise was an integral part of the Horizons curriculum, and each day included a trip to the Franklin & Marshall pool, where the teaching very much continued: None of the children knew how to swim.

“Swimming was my favorite part,” Reed said. “All of the kids acquired some basic swim skills. Some were more eager than others, but none of them had any swim skills on the first day and by the last day, everybody had something. One little boy was even swimming freestyle. It was fantastic and it looked like there might be Olympic swimming in his future.

“They made a lot of progress in the pool but the best thing about it was that it carried over into the classroom, so they would come back from swimming lessons all fired up and feeling really good about what they’d achieved.”

Reed surveyed parents after the program ended. 100 percent said they were “very certain” that Horizons will contribute to the likelihood that their children will attend college and 100 percent said they planned to send their kids back next summer. “That’s where the real impact will take place, as these students come back to us every year through eighth grade, with a new group of rising first-graders adding to the program rolls until we’re full-grown, with about 135 kids. We’re starting small, but we’re getting there,” Reed said.

A broken leg kept Reed much more on the sidelines than she had planned. “Since I wasn’t on two legs for most of this, I needed a little more help,” she said. “A lot of people really came through.”

She saved particular praise for her Upper School volunteers.

“Upper School teachers, I’m jealous, because you have such great kids to work with,” Reed said. “They are so awesome and they did such a great job. They had to commit two weeks at minimum, being here from 8-3 every day, being in the pool with the kids every day, going on field trips, cleaning up spills and taking kids to the bathroom. … They did it all and they were extraordinary. I have to give them so much credit.”

Between now and next summer, Reed’s work with Horizons will continue. On September 19, she will host the first of 4-5 Saturday reunions for the recent grads, filled with fun educational activities for the kids plus a workshop for parents and a meal.

Pediatrician Dr. Vinitha Amanullah will present to parents about health and wellness, and there are also plans for a special holiday party in December, which volunteers will help with. In addition, Reed will visit the Horizons class of ’15 at their school periodically throughout the year.

Click here for more information about Horizons at LCDS.

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