Swim lessons at the Y are part of Horizons at GFA’s efforts to combat summer learning loss among Bridgeport youth
For six weeks each summer, Greens Farms Academy, a K-12 independent school in Westport, hosts some 200 students from Bridgeport, who take part in Horizons at GFA, an academic enrichment program that aims to combat “summer learning loss.”
Part of each week’s curriculum includes afternoon visits to the Westport Weston Family Y for swim lessons and recreational swimming in the Family Y’s Stauffer Pool.
“We are primarily an academic program, but swimming has been a focus since the program was founded 12 years ago,” says Raluca Cocianga, Executive Director of Horizons at GFA. “We’ve found that it boosts confidence by overcoming fear, for those who are afraid of water, and for others, by mastering the skill of swimming.”
Horizons teacher LaVern Burton, or “Miss LaVern,” as she’s called by her students, happily shows proof of this focus during a recent session at the Y. She touches the screen of her iPhone and up pops a photo of youngsters swimming four abreast, arms windmilling out of the water. “For me to see kids who were non-swimmers before doing laps like this…”
Miss LaVern fingers her way through more images, then closes the phone to cast a proud eye over a pool full of her young charges. “…What an accomplishment for them.”
“They are a great bunch of kids, and I know our swim instructors look forward to them returning every year,” says Nicole Turechek, Aquatics Director at the Family Y. “Horizons has become one of the highlights of our summer. The staff is energetic and professional, and their mission matches perfectly with that of the Y’s. It’s a pleasure to host such an amazing group.”
The Horizons at GFA program employs 48 staff and an additional 52 volunteers from local schools and colleges, including many GFA students. Horizons at GFA provides experiences for students in grades K through 12 that strengthen academic performance, build awareness of the outside world and foster curiosity, creativity, self-discipline and a sense of community responsibility.
“Intelligence has nothing to do with income, and everything to do with opportunities,” says Monique Rutledge, Horizons Program Manager. “Summer learning loss has been identified as a primary reason for the achievement gap between low-income students and students in middle- or high-income communities. Some of our kids, especially those from single-parent families or with parents who both work, are left by themselves all day; some don’t even have books at home. Over time, they can lose as much as three school years of learning compared to kids with advantages during school breaks.”
Indeed, studies suggest that two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. The National Center for Summer Learning reports evidence concluding that summer learning loss affects nearly all young people, but is usually most severe with children that come from low-income households.
To help prevent such learning loss, Horizons at GFA offers creative, hands-on learning guided by experienced educators who attend to the individual needs of each child. Assessment and evaluation are key components of the Horizons program, with student skills assessed at the beginning and conclusion of the summer session. In partnership with Yale University's Child Study Center, student progress is also tracked by Horizons National (www.horizonsnational.org), the organization that provides support to the 26 Horizons affiliates across the United States.
The research shows that Horizons students are not merely avoiding summer learning loss – the primary purpose of the summer program – they are actually advancing their skills. Test results from the last five summers show that Horizons students demonstrated an average of a two- to three-month improvement in reading and math ability, with students that began the program behind grade level demonstrating three to four months of improvement.
“We start 8:30 each morning with academics and enrichment programs – science, music and art. It’s not a camp,” says Rutledge. “We give them a lot to do seven hours a day during the summer.” (During the school year, the program runs for 11 Saturdays, four hours a day.)
Three times a week, the older Horizons students head for the Family Y for swimming; the younger kids swim at the Fairfield YMCA four times a week. Boys and girls start swimming separately starting in the sixth grade.
“We work on basic swimming and water-safety skills,” says Rutledge. “If they’ve been with the program for a while, we focus on the fitness aspects of swimming.”
“Trust me, it is not easy to convince an eighth-grade student to swim three times a week,” jokes Cocianga. Turning serious, she adds, “We make it fun, but learning how to swim is a skill that all of our students benefit from: A peer of some of the kids in our program lost a friend this summer. The young girl was playing near the water at Lake Mohegan in Fairfield, slipped in and drowned.”
So it’s into the water, with a mission to enjoy some healthy summer fun, to add a vital life skill, to broaden Horizons with every stroke and splash.
As Miss LaVern says, “These kids don’t have swimming pools in their neighborhoods, so for them to be able to come to the Y, well, this is the place.”
For more information about Horizons at GFA, please visit www.gfacademy.org/horizons. The Family Y’s support of Horizons at GFA’s swimming program is made possible by contributions to its annual Strong Kids Campaign. To find out more, visit www.westporty.org.