Right about now, as the spring school semester is starting, parents are starting to worry about how their kids will spend their time this summer. Parents are enrolling kids in camps, sports and a multitude of other activities. But many summer camps and classes are costly, and not everyone can pay.

One such parent, Eva Barrón, remembers a piece of paper that stumped her last year.

“Pues para mi fue algo asi como – Oh, my God – no lo voy a creer. Verdad?”

Barrón says in Spanish that she couldn’t believe what she was reading. She thought she misunderstood the note from her youngest son’s teacher. It said he’d been selected to attend a free, six-week summer camp every year until he finishes high school. At that time, Barrón’s son Eduardo was only in the first grade.

Barrón also thought she misunderstood because she can’t read English very well.

“Pero esta escuela está hasta Bee Caves, le digo es una escuela de gringos, de ricos.”

The letter said the summer camp was at a school that’s far away from Barrón’s home and it was at a school that’s for wealthy kids, who are mostly white. She knows that because she cleans houses in that neighborhood.

But the note was real.

That summer, I met the 40 kids selected from Southeast Austin’s Rodriguez Elementary – one of the poorest schools in the city – as they were bused to the city’s west side to be part of Horizons, a new program in Texas.

The Horizon campers sang and danced as they arrived at Trinity Episcopal. Then it was time for math – they were greeted with high fives. After math class, it was time for art, where they made robots.

Juliet Scoggin was the art teacher.

“One of our students designed a robot that gives hugs,” she says. “Some give diamonds or cookies or help with homework.”

Then it was Jayden Rosa’s turn to show off his Chinese skills, a language that’s new to him.

The kids had field trips and went swimming every week all while improving their math and reading skills.

Horizons started in the 1960’s when the headmaster at a wealthy campus in Connecticut, the New Canaan Country School, decided to do summer camps focused on learning for kids from East Harlem. Since then, the program has been replicated in many states, but never in Texas – until last year.

Alan Fenton is the board chair for the Horizons program at Trinity Episcopal.

“The data shows that there’s such a slide in the summer that kids begin in September further back than they were in May or April or March,” he says.

Research suggests the summer learning loss is so great for some low-income kids that by fifth grade they can be behind in math and reading by two or even three school years.

To stop that “slippage”, the Horizons program does something that’s unique: it keeps kids in school year-round. But during the summer months, kids hardly notice because they take a math class for one hour and then go swimming. They meet with the reading specialist for another hour and then go dancing – all in the same day.

While the private school picks up the bill for summer camp – everything from transportation to meals and field trips (about $2,000 per kid) – the hope is that participants will reap academic benefits and habits that will serve them year round.

Alan Fenton says, in exchange for fronting the costs, Trinity Episcopal kids benefit by volunteering – not just in class but in sports and arts – and forging relationships that reach across communities.

“This is a way for Trinity to walk the walk,” Fenton says. “It is easy to have a mission statement that talks in theoretical terms about the value of diversity and how welcoming we are. Here we’re involving our students and our faculty and our building in this program.”

And the program works. Kids who wouldn’t be reading during the summer are otherwise doing so, and there’s numbers to show how much they improved in just six weeks. Kids took what’s called the Renaissance STAR Assessment. It showed that second-graders like Eduardo grew on average by 21 percentile points in their oral reading fluency and rising third-graders grew by 18 percentile points.

For her part, Eva Barrón says her son Eduardo has loved being a part of Horizons through the summer and through the school year.

“Él está feliz.”

“He’s so happy,” she says.

Barrón is happy too. Eduardo has had follow-up sessions with Horizon tutors throughout the year and she’s noticed he’s doing better in school.

Even though the program is free, it’s a big effort on Barrón’s part to make sure Eduardo attends these follow-up sessions. On top of working full time, she and her husband – a restaurant worker – have five other children to care for.

Barrón says attendance has been very low at the follow-up sessions. Only five kids have been there consistently. Barrón says she understands, parents are working two and three jobs to keep things afloat. But she fears to get another note that will stump her – this time saying the program has been discontinued.

That is not likely to happen.

This program is unique because it’s a genuine partnership: Trinity Episcopal has committed to seeing these kids graduate high school, while Rodriguez Elementary has committed to sending the same kids each year, adding a grade of newcomers as older kids graduate out of the program. They’re making room for more children this summer.

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  • Joyce Scott January 18, 2017 at 10:49 am

    Joy Diaz – how does a family connect in Dallas or Houston to Horizon? Thank you –

    • Joy Diaz January 18, 2017 at 10:58 am

      Dear Joyce – you might want to visit horizonskids.org. Thank you for listening! Joy