“Are we ready?”
A resounding “Yes!” rings through the room as a group of rising first grade students from Barnett Shoals Elementary School prepare themselves for a group jump into the pool at the University of Georgia’s Ramsey Student Center.
“Three, two, one!”
In unison, the students jump in together, wrapping up a 45-minute swim lesson spent practicing arm movements, blowing bubbles, splashing water and floating on their backs.
During the past six weeks, these students learned how to swim and found joy in learning math, science and reading as part of the inaugural class of the Horizons Atlanta at the University of Georgia (Horizons at UGA) program.
“I know how to do jellyfish and starfish when you put your arms out and float,” said Zayden Barnett, a rising second grade student. “My favorite move is ice cream scoop since it’s important to have your face in the water and blow bubbles out of your mouth, so water doesn’t get in your mouth. I feel more confident now because I used to stay at the side of the pool, but now I can go into the middle.”
During swim sessions, students practiced floating and learned how to do ice cream scoops—or freestyle swim—to reach the edge of the pool safely. Through learning these life-saving skills, students then transfer their newfound confidence in the pool to the classroom and focus on cultivating future success.
“Our lessons are very hands-on, and that is a huge component,” said Susan Cardin, Horizons at UGA site director. “We are much more focused on the kids, and we want them to have fun. But we also want them to learn meaningful and relevant things that they’re going to connect with and take with them into the next year.”
Beyond classroom learning
The Horizons at UGA program, which launched this summer, currently serves 30 students from Barnett Shoals Elementary School and plans to expand by 15 rising first graders every year.
The program creates a supportive, long-term learning community during the summer when students often experience learning loss—a phenomenon that has become even more pronounced during the pandemic, especially in underserved communities.
Horizons at UGA—a partnership between the University of Georgia’s Mary Frances Early College of Education, the Clarke County School District and Horizons Atlanta—focuses on social-emotional learning in addition to academics, blending literacy and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) with swimming to build self-confidence and a lifelong interest in learning.
“We have a very critical social-emotional component in our program,” said Cardin. “We work with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to inform a lot of our social-emotional elements, and we collect data to look at growth over the summer because we want to eliminate the summer slide. Our kids typically do not slide, instead they grow.”
Horizons Atlanta provides 75% of funding for the UGA program, and the remaining 25% is funded by UGA, including the Office of the President, which contributed $35,000. With this funding, students can attend the program at no cost to their families or to CCSD.
Professional staff in the program facilitate and teach in a 5:1 student-to-teacher learning environment with one-on-one and small group interventions by a reading specialist, who uses data to ensure all students’ individual needs are met in the classroom.
“It is evident that my daughter has learned to direct her enthusiasm more productively,” said parent Aaron Farnham. “Most importantly, she has shown more interest in reading. Because she is bilingual, a reading delay was anticipated, and Horizons has helped her bridge the gap. We look forward to seeing how much Horizons can continue to assist her in the future.”
In addition to learning a range of subjects and spending one to two hours swimming each week, students attended field trips to places like UGA’s North Campus and Whitehall Forest.
During a visit to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, students learned lessons on how to turn trash into fertilizer, the environmental impact of spiders, how plants defend themselves from predators and more.
“This is my favorite field trip because I get to learn about all the cool things like plants,” said rising second grade student Demetrius Hill. “I also learned about number pyramids in math class. They were easy at first, but they got harder when I got bigger numbers.”
Beyond giving back
While Horizons at UGA is in its inaugural year, the program’s roots run deep.
Nancy Juneau, CEO of Juneau Construction Co. and alumna of the Mary Frances Early College of Education, has been involved with Horizons Atlanta for over two decades.
“The premise was super simple,” she said. “It was to take kids that are economically disadvantaged in all kinds of different areas, partner with the public school systems and elementary schools to start, and then middle schools, and engage these kids for six weeks.”
Juneau helped launch—and continues to support—the program at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs. A few years later, during her second year as a UGA Foundation trustee, Juneau suggested bringing the program to her alma mater.
“I said UGA would be a great host and a wonderful place to nurture these kids,” Juneau said.
She toured Horizons at UGA twice—once during its first week and again during its last week, which included two other notable guests: First Lady Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
The pair visited the program on its penultimate day, engaging with students and their parents as they practiced swimming and learning through hands-on activities.
“It is always an honor to be recognized for the work we do in education, and this visit was a particular honor for a couple of reasons,” Cardin said. “First, to be honored by a visit from a fellow educator such as Dr. Biden really validates the work we have been doing. Second, this visit highlights the ongoing needs our students have for summer learning, not just this summer, but every summer.”
The visit was one stop on a tour of summer learning programs across the country.
The timing of the visit also provided a unique opportunity for Biden and Cardona to see a summer program like Horizons at UGA in its first year.
“I love the fact that they’re seeing this one in its infancy,” Juneau said.
As the program grows in enrollment, the number of staff members and volunteers will increase, offering potential experiential learning opportunities for College of Education students. At full enrollment, the program will serve 135 students.
“This is a great way to come out and be actively involved in a fun way; this program is fun for the adults as well,” Cardin said.
Juneau echoed this sentiment.
“It’s just such a great program, and it’s such a win for the community and the kids and the host school,” Juneau said.