Life with Gracie: In fighting ‘summer slide,’ Horizons Atlanta giving kids better future

John Brock (kneeling left) and Mary Brock (standing) visit with Horizons Atlanta students at the Clark Atlanta University site. The Brocks are co-chairs of Horizons Atlanta’s board of directors. CONTRIBUTED

John Brock (kneeling left) and Mary Brock (standing) visit with Horizons Atlanta students at the Clark Atlanta University site. The Brocks are co-chairs of Horizons Atlanta’s board of directors. CONTRIBUTED

The gap between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next can wreak havoc on student learning, erasing as much as three months of academic achievement.

Summer slide, experts call it.

But for nearly 825 metro Atlanta students from three school districts, that won’t likely happen.

Instead of kids falling behind, children fortunate enough to participate in Horizons Atlanta are able to build on what they learned during the school year. 

You don’t even have to imagine what the impact of that has been. Studies show that well-crafted summer programs that blend academics and enrichment like Horizons’ six-week program can reduce the summer slide for low-income children. And more importantly, there are thousands of kids here and across the country who say the program changed and is changing their lives.

Suleima Millan-Salinas, 21, is a good example.

Before Horizons, she was a shy 6-year old whose teachers assumed she didn’t speak English and automatically assigned her to English for Speakers of Other Languages classes.

RELATED: 9 fun ways for your kids to avoid the ‘summer slide’

When her parents, Marcos Millan and Lourdes Salinas, learned the program could provide the help their daughter needed to excel academically and socially, they signed Suleima up.

Suleima Millan-Salinas (center) assists Horizons Atlanta students during a field trip last summer to the High Museum of Art. Millan-Salinas, now a student at Berry College in Rome, said the program changed her life. CONTRIBUTED

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“Once I got into Horizons and started forming bonds, things quickly changed,” she said. “I just remember feeling comfortable the moment I walked inside. I remember how friendly everyone was.

“The older students would come down and talk to you almost like a mentor kind of thing. They worked with me one on one. After first grade, I became even more comfortable and was placed in the higher reading homeroom and math. I was booking it,” she said, laughing.

“I started to look forward to summer, friends and swimming. By my first year of high school, whenever I saw the statistics that students who didn’t continue learning over the summer had a learning slide, I thought not me. Every summer, there was this group of teachers and kids pushing me to be the best. My confidence skyrocketed.”

Suleima would go on to graduate with honors from Riverwood High School’s International Baccalaureate Program in 2015, the first in her family to graduate from high school. That would not have been except after the program ended, she stayed in touch with the director of Horizons, who encouraged her to go to college.

RELATED: If school is out, hungry children need our help

She applied to 10, was accepted at seven, and chose Berry College in Rome because she loved the hiking trails and it offered her a lacrosse scholarship.

For sure, Suleima has worked hard, but she says Horizons deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

“Without it, I probably would’ve dropped out of high school because I didn’t know any better,” she said. “Instead Horizons would teach me and I’d teach my parents. Now they’re teaching my little sister.”

Horizons Atlanta is part of a national network providing free summer learning programming to economically disadvantaged, public school students on the campuses of independent schools, colleges and universities.

Horizons Atlanta alum Suleima Millan-Salinas (right) shares a moment with Emily Hawkins, executive director of Horizons Atlanta, and Rick Frazier, a former board member and Heartland Coca-Cola Bottling Co. President and COO. CONTRIBUTED

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Typically, children join Horizons the summer before kindergarten and return to the program each year through 12th grade, building lasting relationships with their teachers and peers, developing life skills essential for success, and on average achieving a 97 percent high school graduation rate.

Horizons has been so successful, in fact, it has grown to include more than 55 affiliates across the country in different stages of maturity, according to John and Mary Brock, chairs of Horizons Atlanta’s board of directors.

For years, they said, both Holy Innocents' Episcopal School and Woodward Academy had programs that operated locally independent of the national program.

Then in the winter of 2013, the national board asked what about Atlanta?

“I could see my already busy life getting busier,” Mary Brock said.

Even so, Brock, who sits on the national board, started talks with organizations already working with metro Atlanta kids, and by the summer, Horizons Atlanta had become an independent nonprofit operating three new programs. One at Georgia TechOne at Clark Atlanta. And one at Atlanta Technical College.

Each campus started with 15 low-income kids who they believed were performing at or just below grade level, had the potential to perform better but had essentially been ignored.

Every summer since then, they have added as many as two programs and last summer served nearly 700 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

RELATED: Give your kids an edge with summer camps at Emory, Georgia Tech, SCAD

For children coming from families with limited educational experience like Suleima, the sense of wonder and thirst for learning Horizon students discover are unmatched, catapulting them from a world of limitations to one of possibilities.

“Our goal is to serve 2,000 students in this area,” Mary Brock said.

In the beginning, the Brocks said they simply wanted to eliminate the achievement gap. The goal now is to eliminate the opportunity gap and thus change the trajectory of not only the lives of the children they serve but also their families, their schools and the communities they return to once the summer is spent.

The Brocks, Mississippi natives who live in Buckhead, first started volunteering with Horizons’ national board in 1998 while living in Wilton, Conn., because they saw the difference it makes in children’s lives.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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“A lot of programs gives kids a place to go,” John Brock said. “Horizons is a real enrichment program that helps them figure out how to read better, do math better and swim, which has a ripple effect on their families and communities.”

Of course, all of this takes money, about $2 million a year for the Atlanta program, three-quarters of which Horizons’ board raises with the help of support staff.

Last December, the Brocks launched the 100 Percent Club in which supporters commit to supporting one child at $2,500 each summer. To date, more than 60 people have signed up.

In just five years, under the Brocks’ leadership, Horizons Atlanta has become the largest affiliate in the network and is expected to grow to nine sites this summer.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that as the program grows, so will the need.

The question is, will this city too busy to hate open their wallets and show them some love?

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