Leslie Torenz was surprised. Her reading level in fourth grade was not where it was projected to be. It was higher. Much higher. And she knew where the escalation in her reading skills came from: Horizons Atlanta.
“I didn’t know if [Horizons Atlanta] was helpful for me until the teachers showed me the score and I had improved a lot,” she said.
The nonprofit works to close the opportunity gap through high quality academics in an engaging learning environment that features classes throughout the year and an intensive six-week summer course. The summer program features scholastic engagement as well as activities such as swimming. As part of their mission, the program wants participants to be able to read proficiently by the third grade, graduate from high school, receive higher education and become, “globally competitive professionals.”
Leslie has been affiliated with the program as a student since she was in kindergarten. She is now engaged with Broader Horizons, a one to two week after school program that focuses on ACT and SAT prep for former Horizon students at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. The 16-year-old junior at Riverwood High School embodies the principals of the program. Ask her what she wants to do for a career after college, and her aspirations are strong: International Business.
Horizons Atlanta launched in the city in 1999 when Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church and Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School formed a partnership to bring the program to the city. The organization now has several program sites throughout the city with Holy Innocents’ as the flagship.
Here’s how it works: Students are eligible to enroll in Horizons the summer after kindergarten and participate through eighth grade, specifically targeting those who need help the most. By design, more than 60 percent of the students perform below grade level when they first enroll.
All students who are eligible also must receive free or reduced lunch, come from public schools and need academic support.
And the support is not lip service. The summer learning programs are based on a 5:1 student-teacher ratio, which provides opportunities for in-depth teaching and one-on-one interventions. The program also uses statistics and metrics to actively measure academic growth.
Alex Wan was named executive director of the program in May. The former Atlanta City Council member and longtime community advocate said while he expected to be impressed with the program, he still found himself surprised at the vitality of the students.
“I knew it would be exiting to see them and interact with them, but I was surprised the level of enthusiasm these kids have for being in school during the summer,” he said.
In addition to the educational facet, Wan said the integration of swimming and water skills with the program is a strong complement to the scholastic part.
“I didn’t expect kids that were terrified of the water one day, would be comfortable the next,” he said. “Then it struck me that facing your fears translates to the classroom and beyond the classroom and life in general.”
One of the critical points Horizons makes is how the poverty rate affects opportunity and, in particular, how the poverty rate in Fulton County mirrors the U.S. childhood rate at 24 percent.
While many in metro Atlanta may think of pockets of poverty, this number is shocking to many the first time they hear it. The numbers even struck Wan.
“You knew the problem was there, but not to the extent it was happening,” he said.
The bulk of children served come from Fulton County, the City of Atlanta and, recently, a small percentage from Paulding County.
Horizons’ success has brought exponential growth. They continue to add more sites, such as colleges and private schools, and since 2013 their enrollment has almost tripled from 330 students to 820 in 2018.
If you want evidence that Horizons Atlanta has got community buy-in, don’t look farther than their website. The list of nonprofits, educational institutions and companies that partner with the group reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Atlanta. More than ten learning institutions and universities, several foundations and countless individuals donate time, money and space for the program including such luminaries as The Arthur Blank Foundation, Georgia Tech, Woodward Academy and, the school where it all began, Holy Innocents.
In 2019, Horizons Atlanta hits an important milestone. The year not only marks the program’s 20th anniversary of programming, but they also plan on serving 1,000 students next summer alone.
For more information, visit horizonsatlanta.org.