What began two years ago as a way for Riverdale Country School to help disadvantaged youth during the pandemic has grown into a sustainable summer school program.
The prestigious pre-K through 12th grade private school has been working with the national Horizons organization through its New York City affiliate since 2020. Its mission is to advance education equity by reducing summer learning loss. HNYC provides academic access, opportunity, and guidance for under-served students throughout New York City. Besides Riverdale, Horizons facilitates programs in Brooklyn and East Harlem.
The reason for starting the program grew out of the concern for poor children, who make up 71.9 percent of the school population in New York City. Teachers and government officials were worried those students were losing opportunities to learn during hybrid COVID-19 classes from 2020-21.
“The mission of Horizons is to fight for education equity in the city and reduce the opportunity gap in our country,” said regional director of Horizons NYC Aubrie Therrien.
Their three-week pilot program, which starts July 11, is funded by grants and individuals.
“The pandemic created gaps across all areas of learning, especially for our youngest learners,” said Horizons Riverdale Country School co-director Andrea Hutchins.
At their Riverdale location, it began and still is a pilot program, virtually with rising first-graders. It eventually grew and subsequently added two grades since then. It is now done live.
“We have very full and very fun days for our students! We focus on interdisciplinarity, so there is a natural flow, back and forth, from the classroom to community building,” said Hutchins.
Unlike traditional summer schools, Horizons students don’t spend 45 minutes in reading, writing, and math. Instead, students spend time in creative lessons to push their thinking and learning.
In addition, the classes, which include 20 students each, help them grow and practice social and emotional skills, which are often overlooked in academic development, Hutchins told The Press.
Students are chosen based on applications, which include a teacher recommendation and a report card to determine their academic needs.
Therrien told The Press that students who receive free or reduced lunch in school are eligible for the program.
Co-directors Hutchins and Jessie Grees encourage families in the nearby area to apply if they qualify.
“Summer learning loss is kind of the phenomenon we see within low-income communities where the students go off for the summer, and they come back to school, and they’re two months behind their peers,” Therrien stressed.
Most traditional summer schools are in session for six weeks. However, Riverdale is a three-week program — for now.
Some might wonder, is that enough?
“They say something is better than nothing,” Therrien said.
“Each student will experience each (offered) course,” Grees said. “Our teachers will differentiate their instruction for each grade level.”
This summer’s offerings include Mandarin, games from around the world, understanding feelings with art and music, playwriting, theatre, music writing, ocean animal exploration and more.
Horizon teachers and mentors can choose freely how they want their class curriculum to go. They call it a “dream class.” That encourages educators to stretch themselves and engage in something they are passionate about.
Within each class, there are two teachers plus volunteers. This means the majority of the students in the class will receive individual attention.
“This is the best day of my life!” one student said in Brooklyn, which almost made Therrien cry.
The year Horizons started to go back in person, Therrien noticed trauma from the students. They were coming out of the pandemic, especially young children who were doing a year and a half of virtual learning. They experienced disruption, food insecurity and, unfortunately family sorrow. Being away from their friends did not help.
However, as time passed in the program, she saw students ultimately showing happiness.
Horizons loves to let students have fun while learning, which they say is what differentiates it from traditional summer schools. In Brooklyn, professional lifeguards instruct students to surf. Some locations offer swimming as well.
“That’s a huge thing to teach our students to swim,” Therrien said.
Swimming might be overlooked as an educational value, but it is a safety issue that should be educated — especially for the young.
On an ethnic scale, swimming education — in pools — is vital in some communities because Black and brown youths are 7.6 times more likely to drown than white children.
Unfortunately, the Riverdale program will not offer swimming this summer as planned due to a conflict in scheduling and staff issues with ESF camp.
“We are honored to be a part of this program to have started in its pilot year and watch it grow to the in-person experience it is today it is both exciting and humbling,” the co-directors said. “Our students, families, and teachers are some of the most creative, grateful, and zesty bunch of people we know.”