“I want to be an artist.” “I want to be a police officer.” “A scientist.” “An archeologist.” “A basketball player.”
These are the responses I heard when I asked a small group of fourth and fifth grade Horizons students what they want to be when they grow up.
But to understand why these answers are inspiring—why it’s monumental that these kids have set such extraordinary goals for themselves—I first had to understand where these children are coming from.
These students walk to school from their neighborhood, which is comprised of low-income, mostly outdated, government housing. As I’m told, the community is riddled with drugs and violence.
“For most of them, their situation is very hopeless,” says January Serda, director of development for Horizons Hampton Roads. “These children are growing up in this environment that we cannot even imagine; the things that they’re exposed to we cannot even imagine … A big part of their life is just survival.”
Then there’s the list of things they’re not exposed to. Studies show that by third grade, children in low-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer vocabulary words than their more privileged counterparts. And while most kids their age are counting down the days to summer break where they’ll participate in camps, read new books and take vacations with their families, these kids don’t have those activities to look forward to.
This alone is a major contributor to what’s commonly referred to as the “summer slide” or the achievement gap that occurs during summer break. “If the student’s already a grade level behind, the summer tacks on more, so they’re coming back even further behind versus being engaged in a program like ours that at least will keep them where they were when they left school or will hopefully and statistically bring them up in just those six weeks,” Serda explains.
Learning at Horizons is different than learning in their regular classrooms. For starters, they’re not in their same classrooms. Students in the program are bussed to three different sites: Norfolk students go to Norfolk Collegiate School, Portsmouth Students attend Portsmouth Regional Catholic School, and Virginia Beach students visit Chesapeake Bay Academy.
During the six weeks, students actively engage in their education through a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-based curriculum, allowing them to partake in hands-on projects, experience one-on-one time with reading specialists and go on fieldtrips to places like the planetarium, Slover Library, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and the beach—a place that most of us take for granted but that the majority of these kids have never visited. Plus, they’re given the opportunity to learn how to swim, a skill that not only improves children’s safety but builds confidence, too. And most importantly, notes fourth grader Kam’ryn Crothers, “You get to be yourself.”
A huge factor that contributes to the success of the program is bringing students to different environments than their regular schools and neighborhoods, for several reasons:
First, it exposes them to new places. For these kids, their neighborhood isn’t just where they live and attend school. The majority of them, even by elementary age, have not only never left their city—they’ve never left their neighborhood. “They live, breathe, sleep and eat there 24/7,” explains Janna Drof, school counselor at Tidewater Park Elementary and Norfolk program site director for Horizons Hampton Roads. “That’s all they have. They live in a little bubble, and some of them don’t ever get out.”
Secondly, it exposes them to new people, including kids from different neighborhoods. “What we don’t realize is there’s already a perception of kids from other neighborhoods, and that sort of division starts,” Serda explains. “That’s what gangs are; they’re neighborhoods.” So once children have the opportunity to interact with kids from other parts of the city, they realize they’re not so different. “They’re breaking these barriers that you and I don’t even recognize even exist but are totally real things to these kids,” Serda acknowledges.
And finally, being in a different environment can be a real game changer for their outlooks and their attitudes. “I’m a firm believer as an educator that children rise to the level of expectation,” explains Dr. Judy Jankowski, the head of school for Chesapeake Bay Academy in Virginia Beach. “We are offering them a very high-level, high-quality experience, and they respond in kind.” She notes that the Horizons children she interacts with are respectful, absolutely appropriate and then some. “This is a new place, it’s a new environment, it’s a fresh start; this gives them a whole new understanding of the world because the world that they live in is pretty different,” she notes. “We’re broadening our experience and also broadening their own expectations for themselves.”
Jankowski notes that igniting a passion for learning in these children is fundamental to their futures, both in education and in society. “It’s not just about today; it’s about their entire future,” she expresses. “The fact that they’re staying with it, K–8 and hopefully further on. Continuity is what makes it work.”
A prime example of this can be found in 10th grader Maggie Rosario, a Horizons graduate who has participated in the program since kindergarten and now volunteers with Horizons during the summer. “I always want to stay involved in Horizons,” she says. “Horizons helped mold me a lot; they [taught] me in ways that schools wouldn’t or I wouldn’t have figured out on my own.” Her ultimate goal is to become a teacher so that she can work with Horizons students in a higher capacity. “Seeing the kids when I show them something or they learn something because of me—it’s awesome and life-changing.”