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Expanding Horizons to Close Achievement Gaps

SHU students join effort to reverse low-income children’s summer learning loss

Ruthie Phillips with student Sana’a Goutier

By Tim Deenihan

Summer is the heart of the problem. Summer is what propels the cycle—both upwards and down. Trying to treat the symptoms without tackling the problem of summer is like taking acetaminophen to cure cancer.

Here’s how it works.

For all intents and purposes, children are the same. Pluck any two kindergarteners out of any two socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, and they will learn at essentially the same rate, finishing out the school year having grown essentially as much as each other. Then summer happens.

Children from middle- and high-income families typically have active summers. They may join camps and clubs. They may go away for a vacation—however modest or extravagant is of no matter in this regard. Playdates with friends and family likely will involve trips to the pool or the beach. They’ll be on the go, and they’ll be engaged. Their minds are active in all sorts of ways, and what they learned during the school year gets practiced and retained.

Not so for their low-income counterparts. These are children whose age prohibits independence, so while their middle- and high-income classmates go places and have things to do, the low-income children simply do not have the same access to activity. As a result, their minds are not exercised, their skills are neither practiced nor retained, and they enter the next school year having slid backwards.

They may learn at the same rate again, but summer will return and the middle- and high-income kids will continue to grow, and the low-income kids again will fall victim to what is known among educators as the “summer slide.”

The effect is cumulative. What’s more, it began before they even started school since, academically speaking, that 0- to 4-year-old stretch is essentially an extended summer. Developmentally speaking, the low-income child enters kindergarten about six months behind her middle- or high-income classmates and will be anywhere between two-and-a-half to three years behind by the time they all reach fifth grade. That’s an achievement gap of roughly 50 percent—a gap that is extremely difficult to overcome.

That downward spiral has momentum, so that only 60 percent of low-income students will even attend their last year of high school, let alone meet the standards of graduation. For perspective, the rate among more affluent students is comfortably north of 90 percent.

And it all comes back to young kids in the summertime.

This is where Jeff Rumpf and Sacred Heart University’s Horizons Summer Enrichment Program step in to break the cycle. Or, as Rumpf puts it, “We dive into the gap. There’s no cherry picking. Two-thirds of our kids are below reading level, and all of them are from families falling below the poverty line.” These are the kids for whom summer isn’t an escape; it’s a sentence.

Yet with the proper intervention, the results are phenomenal. Over the last 40 years of Horizons’ national program, 99 percent of its students graduated high school—a better success rate than even most middle- and high-income students—and 91 percent of them went on to higher education. Which begs the obvious question: how did they do it?

The Horizons program at Sacred Heart, set on the University campus, “opens doors that don’t even exist in other programs,” Rumpf explains. What other program could access Olympic-sized swimming pools, open garden plots, martial arts studios, rehearsal halls and performance auditoriums, not to mention science labs and full libraries, all while providing a one-to-four student-teacher ratio?

Additionally, the University allows for a continuity the children see nowhere else, except with their own parents. The camp itself may only run for six weeks, but the Horizons calendar includes 10 Saturday Academy programs and additional events and support, including tutoring, martial arts, golf and special performances. Program staff members also intervene and advocate for the students throughout the year as needed.

The benefits blossom like petals on a flower. Students return to school actually ahead of where they were academically when they left, ready to hit the ground running. University academicians get to practice best methods in a living laboratory, piloting leveled learning curriculum built around the children’s needs.

Meanwhile, University students get hands-on experience as responsible, decision-making educators. Ruthie Phillips, a sophomore sociology and elementary education major, is a program assistant at Horizons, though she’s quick to point out that “assistant” doesn’t mean she spends her day making copies and getting coffee. “I’m the one planning the lessons that I teach,” she says. “I’m the one responsible for the kids I work with. There’s no other program that gives me this kind of experience.”

At the tender age of 19, Phillips is a seasoned veteran of the program, having been involved with Horizons since she was a sophomore at Bridgeport’s Central Magnet High School. She has wanted to be a teacher since kindergarten, she explains, so her adviser had her look into the program. Now, “I’ll be with Horizons forever,” she says. “They can’t get rid of me.”

That’s great news for Carmella Parish, a Brooklyn native who moved to Bridgeport with her three children in 2012. “Ruthie’s my darling,” she gushes. Parish’s twins, Jaden and Jeremiah, were accepted to the program in 2013, struggling in math and well below reading level. Now Jaden wants to be a doctor, Jeremiah’s favorite books are the Goosebumps and Junie B. Jones series, and the third-graders can’t wait to get back to Horizons. Ask either one what’s the best part and, in typical kid fashion, they offer a litany of “bests”—the pool, the math, the martial arts, the writing, the reading, the gardening (“I grew a cucumber and then I ate it for lunch!” Jeremiah boasts)—with no differentiation between what coordinators would call academic and social/emotional learning.

That’s exactly the desired effect of the model Rumpf refers to as CARS—Creative, Academic, Recreational and Social—with equal emphasis placed on all facets of the student’s growth. “We have kids that come to us thinking that they hate reading,” he says. “Why? Because all of their experience in school has been to tell them that they’re no good at it. High expectation only shows them what they don’t have.” Horizons’ holistic approach fills in the gaps.

“The hook is the enrichment programs,” Rumpf explains. “The dance, the martial arts. But it’s a supportive culture. A child’s frustration means they need support, not a time-out in the corner. They work one-on-one with a tutor until—whaddaya know?—they’re asking for extra books from the Bookmobile.”

Yes, Horizons even has regularly scheduled visits from the Bridgeport Library Bookmobile.

If the theory sounds Pollyannaish, the results prove the practice. Surround young students with successful mentors—kids in college, as opposed to kids on the street. Give the next generation of teachers first-hand experience with an inner-city appetite for learning, as opposed to the stereotypical notion of an educational war zone. Make the comparatively minor investment in bridging the achievement gap, and relieve the societal burden of a subculture perpetually underprepared for success and thus unable to succeed.

Summer propels the cycle. That much is certain. But the Horizons program at Sacred Heart University gives its young students the opportunity to determine that cycle’s direction, turning a downward spiral into a launchpad of opportunity.

“Everything good that happens is small, and local, and usually one-on-one,” says Rumpf, referencing a lesson learned from his own mentor, legendary singer and social activist Pete Seeger.

“This is what works,” he says. “It’s not the yelling and protesting. It’s in the camps and colleges. Sacred Heart is the new paradigm for Horizons—young people benefitting their city.

“It’s amazing what you can mobilize with a group of young kids.”