Helping Disadvantaged Youth Get Ahead

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for over 15 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore who she has met along the way.

What began in Connecticut in 1965 utilizing a private school during the summer months to help disadvantaged youth, has now spread nationwide, helping thousands of disadvantaged children avoid the “summer slide” of falling behind in their grade levels in reading, writing, and math. There are currently 55 affiliate sites across the country, primarily in the Northeast. Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s County was the third program in the country to get started in 1995, using the Kent School in Chestertown for a summer program for underprivileged elementary and middle school children in Kent County Public Schools. Since then, the program expanded to Queen Anne’s County in 2015, utilizing The Gunston School in Centreville for a summer program.

Middle school students take an overnight trip to Smith Island through Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s County summer program.

Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s was inspired by research conducted by Johns Hopkins sociology Professor Karl Alexander and his colleagues that found that “summer slide” is the academic loss that occurs when low income children are out of school, watching TV or wandering the streets. Karl’s research indicates that during the school year, lower income children’s skills improve at about the same rate as upper income children’s. During the summer, lower income children do not improve, while upper income children’s skills continue to improve. The summer learning shortfall over the elementary grades experienced by low income children has consequences that reverberate all throughout children’s schooling, into high school and beyond. Underprivileged students are six times more likely to drop out of high school.

The mission of the Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s County, a nonprofit organization, is to help children take charge of their lives and realize their full potential. In addition to strengthening students’ academic abilities, the program builds their self-confidence and citizenship skills. Horizons works to reduce the academic achievement gap between impoverished and middle class public school children that tends to occur over the summer.

Children read to adoptive dogs from Kent County Humane Society through the Horizons program.

According to Bob Parks, Executive Director of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s County, “The children we serve don’t have enrichment in the summer through vacations and summer camps – they stay home and because of this they tend to slide more than middle class students. By the time they get to sixth grade, they are often behind.”

Principals and guidance counselors identify students who could benefit from the program. The Kent County program serves 130 students in Pre-K through grade eight, while the Queen Anne’s County program serves 75 children in grades Kindergarten through grade five. Queen Anne’s County has plans to continue to grow to accommodate children through grade eight as well, adding a new grade each year. All of the students who participate in the programs are on the Federal free and reduced meal program. Once a student is identified for the program, they have priority in re-enrolling the following year. The program is held for six weeks in the summer and is held five days a week, experiencing a blend of fun and academic activities.

Kristin O’Neil, the site director of the Kent County program notes that Horizons partners with the Kent County Parks and Recreation to provide swimming in the community pool and offer Red Cross swimming lessons, as well as the Kent County Humane Society, which brings in adoptable dogs to whom students read. Kent County Public Schools provides technology support for the students. Kent County also partners with Washington College for its middle school students, offering them a glimpse of college life as they eat lunch in the college cafeteria before working on academics in the college’s facilities each afternoon.

Three days a week, elementary school children focus on learning to swim and have free time in the pool in the morning, with prescriptive reading and mathematics activities in the afternoon. Two days a week, the academics are in the morning with the afternoon focusing on various on-campus enrichment activities and field trips that teach students about their communities and the world. The curriculum is student-centered and hands-on to maximize student engagement and retention. Students not only improve academically, but participate in activities that foster creativity, confidence, citizenship, and good health. Both breakfast and lunch are served daily. In Kent County, this year’s summer theme is animals, and the program has offered trips to the Philadelphia Zoo, as well as to local farms, for students to experience animals firsthand.

Kristin comments, “Many of the students have been in the program every summer. We offer opportunities they would not get on their own. The majority are super excited to be here. As a teacher, it is such a great opportunity to be a part of this.”

She notes that the program has grown dramatically over the past five years in Kent County with nearly 30 staff participating in the summer program. She states, “We are saying ‘yes’ to as many kids as we can. We now have 14 to 16 children in each class with two teachers.”

Bob adds that the program is working, stating, “Our teaching staff are all certified and are dedicated to this program. We test the students in the beginning of the summer and again at the end of the summer. Last summer, the testing showed increases of two to five months in achievement in reading and in math.”

After eighth grade, the Kent County program has implemented a yearlong school mentoring program where community leaders and teachers meet with high school students twice a month. The first class of seniors participating in the mentoring program graduated this year. Four of the five students are headed to community college and one is going into the military.

“At Horizons, we believe all children, regardless of income, should have the same opportunity to realize their potential. But sadly, too many underprivileged children fail to get the start in life they need. Instead, these children face uncertain futures marked by truancy, high drop-out rates, eventual unemployment – and worse. Helping these students is a tremendous service to our community. Our transformative, community-based approach improves academic performance, builds lasting connections, and puts these children on a path to success in school and life,” states Bob.

The cost for each student participating in Horizons is $35 for the summer and there are scholarships available for families who may have several children in the program. Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s relies on donations and private grants for the majority of its work. Donors can help at-risk children see a brighter future ahead.

To learn more about Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s County, contact Bob Parks, Executive Director, at 410-778-9903 or visit horizonskentqueenannes.org.

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