EXPANDING HORIZONS: Summer Program Helps Children Believe and Achieve

Horizons studentsThe boy, who had just finished kindergarten, didn’t know how to write the alphabet. The only letter he could complete was “S,” the first letter of his first name.
This was seven years ago, when he entered the Horizons at Warner summer enrichment program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.
“He would hide under the table or walk around the room whenever he needed to read or write, but we were determined to help him write his name by the end of the summer,” says Lynn Gatto, executive director of Horizons and assistant professor of education at Warner.
And he did.
Now in middle school and still a student at Horizons, he is both writing and reading close to grade level.
“We meet children where they are,” Gatto continues, “and make sure they get what they need.”
Warner was the first university campus to join a national network of high-quality summer learning programs designed for low-income students, the population most susceptible to the so-called “summer slide” — the well-documented seasonal drop in reading and math skills that by fifth grade can leave them up to three years behind their peers, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
Horizons blends academics with arts, sports, cultural enrichment, field trips, and confidence-building activities such as swim lessons for 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Horizons TAITIn addition, a ninth-grade study and job skills program called TAITs (Teacher Assistants in Training) launched in 2016. Students in the TAITs program receive a $500 honorarium for working in classrooms with young children and learning how to have an effective job interview, for example, then are hired as Horizons employees the following summer.
The Horizons at Warner’s retention rate is impressive. Eleven of the 15 children in its original cohort from 2010 still attend.
Parents routinely laud Gatto’s commitment to building and sustaining relationships not only during the summer, but throughout the year.          

About that boy who couldn’t write his name: Gatto wound up walking his mother through the special education system once school started.
“We work with families,” she says. “It’s not that children are just dropped off here every day for six weeks.”
That inclusivity and enthusiastic persistence translates into measurable differences both academically and socially.
“Our motto here is if children don’t want to do something, or feel that it’s impossible,” Gatto adds, “we help them figure out how to do it in a positive way. Because of course they can with the right teacher.”
 Horizons students

Fifteen-year-old Micah Green doesn’t talk much at home or school, maybe a sentence or two over the course of an entire day. He would rather be alone on the computer than go to the movies or out to eat, and is the slowest sibling—he is the oldest of four—to leave the house in the morning.
But for the weeks he is at Horizons every summer, that all changes.          

Aside from being the first one ready each morning, he joins conversations, plays basketball with his brother, and jumps rope with his two sisters, all of whom have been attending Horizons for three years.
“There’s something with this program that brings him out of his shell,” says his mother, Farrah Cherubin. “This is a side of him we don’t see at home. There’s tremendous growth and change.”
Farrah says she felt like she won the lottery when the program accepted Micah, son Jylani, 14, and daughters Giselle, 11, and Yanice, 10.
All have made progress in reading, and, despite initial fears, can swim in the deep end of a pool with confidence.          

The day Yanice came home after learning to play the ukulele, she begged her mom for one. She compared models online, and even volunteered to pay for the instrument herself. After a few hours, Farrah finally caved.
“So there I am at nine o’clock at night, going to different stores trying to find one,” she recalls. “Now she’s in love with it. She learns songs on YouTube and has been playing it every single day since.”
Micah, meanwhile, is providing a good example of what it means to be a leader as a Teacher Assistant in Training. Both Jylani and Giselle have expressed interest in attending that program once they qualify.
“When you’re a leader, you make sure you stay away from bad habits,” says Jylani, who becomes eligible next summer. “You choose your own path.”          

From experience, Farrah knows her oldest son’s breakthroughs may diminish once Horizons ends.
“After it’s over, he shuts down again a little bit,” she says. “But I honestly don’t know where he would be without this program. He’s in good hands.”
 Horizons students playing  

Seven years ago, Sincere Simmons was a six-year-old boy with a significant learning disability, struggling to read. Administrators at his school wanted to send him to summer school, but his mother, Laquanda, enrolled him in Horizons instead.
When school resumed in the fall, the administrators were shocked, notes Laquanda.
“They said they couldn’t believe how much his reading had grown in just a couple of months,” she remembers.
Sincere, who has attended Horizons every year since, now is a 13-year-old honor roll student. Despite being shy, he volunteers to read aloud in class.
Laquanda’s 17-year-old daughter, Quanisha Brooks, hasn’t had a fight in school since entering the program seven years ago, and has been on her school’s honor roll for the past two years. She always knew she wanted to be a doctor, but her involvement in the program as a Teacher Assistant in Training, working with kindergartners (“There are a lot of snacks and bathroom breaks!”), led to her decision to become a pediatrician.
“I see what makes them cry, what makes them happy, what they like and don’t like,” explains Quanisha, who vows to return to Horizons as a volunteer no matter what job she eventually gets.
As far as how Horizons is different than her traditional school, she says, “It’s not as much pressure to me. Instead of ‘You have to learn this,’ it’s ‘Take your time, learn at your pace.’”
Laquanda, whose other son, Lashawn Morgan, attended the program for several years, doesn’t like to think about how her children would spend the summer otherwise.          

“They’d be involved with stuff on the street,” she says. “But here they’re able to keep active and stay positive. They get to experience a lot of the things that, financially, I wouldn’t be able to do with them.”
Like provide swim lessons, for example, or afford admission fees to historical sites—things her children’s schools don’t offer, either.
Laquanda says she’s overwhelmed by the support given to all students, no matter how they learn, and grateful for executive director Lynn Gatto’s consistent encouragement.          

“Lynn is always that backbone,” she says. “She not only follows students through the program, she follows them beyond the program. Once you get into the Horizons family, she’s a longtime friend.”
 Horizons family

Barthelemy Koumassou, who grew up in Africa’s Ivory Coast, remembers going to summer school: “You went to a classroom and did what the teacher asked you to do. You didn’t get to pick and choose what you’d like to learn about.”
Today, as the father of three children in Horizons, as well as one of the program’s teachers, he is continually reminded how fortunate these students are to have the authority to select workshops—in areas such as biology, LEGO Robotics, tap dancing and more—that interest them.
Barthelemy’s 13-year-old son, Arnold, in his seventh year at Horizons, decided to choose a workshop that teaches yoga, breathing techniques, and other relaxation methods to keep him calm, especially when he wants to end an argument with his 9-year-old brother, Femi, at home.
Now, he goes into his bedroom, locks the door, and traces his left fingers with his right hand, breathing in on the way up, breathing out on the way down.
“I keep doing that over and over,” he says, until he feels composed enough to face his brother once more. “Sometimes he’s still angry at me a little bit, but I try to ignore it. If he’s in a good mood, we’ll start watching TV together.”
From a social perspective, Barthelemy has noticed his 11-year-old daughter, Abiola, become more self-assured and determined over her six years in the program. And in the five years Femi has attended, Barthelemy has watched his son’s behavior problems disappear and friendships blossom.
For his own part, Barthelemy, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds during the school year, appreciates the small teacher-to-student ratio at Horizons—particularly on field trips—and the respect teachers show the children.
“That gives students more of an opportunity to be compliant and do the right thing,” he says. “It also gives them the opportunity to be very independent, and that progressively translates into real life.”
Arnold already is picturing what life could be like as a college student on the University of Rochester campus: “I want to know what the other buildings look like and the classrooms look like. I want to see more.”
In the meantime, apart from enjoying himself playing basketball and other sports with his friends during outdoor playtime, Arnold has been most fascinated by a field trip to Mount Hope Cemetery, which was tied to the program’s thematic approach to Rochester’s history. (Themes in past years have included “Inventors,” “Architecture,” and “The Genesee River,” among others.) At Mount Hope he learned that the wealthiest people used to plan for their burial in mausoleums, an option he never knew existed.
The mixture of formal and informal activities is what keeps students engaged, according to Barthelemy.
“When you touch children’s interests, they’re motivated to learn,” he says. “We let children shine here.”

Robin L. Flanigan
Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
(585) 275-0777; (585) 278-6273 (cell)

Tags: Horizons, Horizons at Warner, Lynn Gatto, summer enrichment, summer learning