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How Can Private Schools Contribute To the Public Good?

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Kindergarten students in the Horizons summer program at their swim lesson. (Abby Rovner/Horizons at San Francisco Friends School)

All kids forget some of what they learned during the school year over summer, but more affluent families often pay for travel or summer opportunities that mitigate this loss. That's why some call summer the "most unequal time of the year."  Johns Hopkins researchers found that summer learning loss in elementary school accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income children and their middle-income peers by ninth grade.

Many non-profits and city programs recognize this problem and offer programming for low-income kids. But the goals and quality of these programs can vary and the demand for them is high. That's why some private schools are stepping in to contribute resources to this problem. Horizons is a public-private partnership trying to reduce the summer learning gap by giving low-income children the academic support and other enriching experiences that their more affluent peers pay for over the break.

Through Horizons, private schools and universities open their campuses and offer a high-quality summer experience to low-income public school students. Kids get extra instruction in reading, writing and math, but they also do hands-on science and have plenty of time to play. Each class has about 17 students, and is staffed with a credentialed teacher, a teaching assistant and two high school student volunteers.

“We are making an impact on the kids’ ability to achieve at grade level as they go through school,” said Abby Rovner, director of the Horizons program housed at the San Francisco Friends School.* “By not allowing them to slide back in their academic skills, and by giving them all kinds of enriching, exciting experiences so that they get back to school the next year ready to learn, I feel like summer after summer we’re supporting their academic growth, but also their confidence, their love of learning and also their vision for themselves.”

Students gain confidence in non-academic areas that teachers work to transfer back into academic learning. (Abby Rovner/Horizons at SFFS)

This is a cohort-model, so the same kids return year after year. In addition to targeted reading and math support, kids get to do a lot of the activities that many public schools can no longer afford. They have two recesses, drama, art and dance. This summer students attended the theater, where they saw School of Rock; they went kayaking; and they visited the Exploratorium, among other field trips.


“I really strongly believe that experiences and access to arts enrichment and hands-on science is a huge equity issue for low-income children,” Rovner said. “It opens their eyes to what’s possible for them, to things they may or may not love and want to pursue. It gives them different ways to understand what they read when they’re back in the classroom doing academic learning. And it brings joy and excitement for learning into their lives.”

Swimming is a surprisingly important part of this program. Students often start out knowing nothing about swimming, feeling uncomfortable in the water, and unsure of their abilities. Pretty soon, though, they’re kicking, swimming underwater and pushing themselves to try new moves. That willingness to take risks, experiment, and tackle something hard comes straight back to the classroom.

“With the kids it builds so much confidence so quickly,” said kindergarten teacher Roxy Cano. She says some of her most timid swimmers were also scared to try new things in the classroom. But Cano said, “to see them overcome something, and then to name it and talk to them about that, and tell them look you did this, you should be proud of yourself,” they start to try new things in the classroom too.

Many kids said swimming was their favorite part of the summer. And every adult said it was a crucial part of the program’s success.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I was one of the biggest doubters and now I’m one of the biggest champions because the power of it is really apparent,” said Guybe Slangen, director of community engagement at the San Francisco Friends School.

Slangen’s job is to connect the school to the community where it sits, a historically Latino neighborhood that has been rapidly gentrifying. He’s done that in several ways, often coordinating Friends school teachers and students to work with organizations in the community. When Slangen heard about the Horizons program at a conference, he wanted to bring it to his school.

“That model, is what’s so exciting about it because you can have private schools that contribute to and support the great work that public schools are doing,” Slangen said.

Slangen is aware private schools occupy a complicated space in San Francisco and also in the larger education conversation. But he said too often they’ve been afraid to address the issue head on.

“I don’t see independent schools going anywhere anytime soon,” Slangen said. “But what can we do with what we have now and how might we be able to make an impact, a difference? To be a little bit more equitable, a little bit more accessible, a little bit more of the solution.”

To that end, Horizons at the San Francisco Friends School partners with local public schools in its neighborhood, most of which serve a largely Latino and low-income population of students. Rovner works with kindergarten teachers who recommend students that are behind grade level to the program. After parents apply and get in, those kids come back year after year, all the way through eighth grade. This cohort model creates a unique community of teachers, parents, and students each summer.

Fourth grade Horizons students are practicing reading like detectives, looking for clues to predict what will happen next.
Fourth grade Horizons students are practicing reading like detectives, looking for clues to predict what will happen next. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

“The narrow and deep impact that we are having with these kids can really make a huge impact,” Slangen said. “Those relationships only deepen and strengthen over time and we can see the impact over time, not only with the students, but with the families as well.”

Horizons National has been around since the 1960s, time enough to measure the impact of its program on student success. They estimate that students gain eight to twelve weeks of learning over each six-week summer session. And 97 percent of students who participate in Horizons go on to graduate high school, with 91 percent attending college or other post-secondary training. The Horizons program at the San Francisco Friends School has seen similar math and reading gains based on pre and post tests of its students, but don’t have official numbers because the program is still small with just 84 students.

Fourth grade Horizons students listen to their teacher during circle time.
Fourth grade Horizons students listen to their teacher during circle time. (Courtesy Horizons at SFFS)

Parents often gather in the morning at drop-off or at afternoon pick-up chatting together or with teachers. They appreciate how responsive Rovner and the other teachers are to their questions and concerns.

“You have a question, it gets answered. You have a doubt, it gets resolved,” said Christine Pineda, whose daughter is in the Horizons program. Although Pineda grew up in the neighborhood, she and her daughter lived for several years in El Salvador with her husband. When it came time for her daughter to start school, Pineda moved back to the States. Her daughter struggled with English at her new school. Pineda said her daughters’ comfort and expression in English has improved since starting Horizons.


Rovner tries to hire credentialed teachers whenever she can, although some of the teachers this summer were teachers-in-training. She’s looking for people who want to teach in hands-on, experiential ways and who are excited about the mission of the program. But it can be challenging to find teachers who want to commit seven weeks of their summer break to more teaching. Many are just too burned out.

Roxy Cano teaches at a public elementary school in San Francisco all year, but said the environment is different enough at Horizons that she doesn’t feel burnt out. For one thing, she’s got a lot more support. She’s used to having 22 students in a classroom by herself. At Horizons, she has 17 students and multiple adults who help her. That frees her up to give focused one-on-one attention to the kids who really need it, and makes it feel more possible to get to things like science which don’t always fit into the regular school year.

Horizons students during art class.
Horizons students during art class. (Courtesy Horizons at SFFS)

“I feel like I’m more successful here in the summer program,” Cano said. “Even though this is only a six week program, I feel like I can really see a lot of progress in the students’ reading, in their confidence, and how much they grow socially also.”

Cano said she’s got lots of resources and tools to draw from her experience at public school, but it’s a luxury to have the support, professional development, and physical supplies that Horizon provides. During the school year she pays for most supplies out of pocket. At Horizons, they are provided.


Horizons operates as its own non-profit under the 501(c)3 status of the San Francisco Friends School. It’s a huge help that the private school donates its building to the program each summer, especially in a city as expensive as San Francisco. The school's teachers share their space, books, materials and technology with the Horizons staff and teachers. But additionally, the program has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for staff, food, field trips and materials.

Rovner estimates they spend about $3,700 per student for the six week summer program, one week of staff professional development, her year round salary and several events for Horizons families during the school year. And their costs go up each year as they add on classes. This is their fourth year, but they intend to grow into a K-8 program.

It’s not a cheap program and the fundraising comes on top of other fundraising efforts the private school does for its scholarship fund and other priorities. That may be why Slangen called interest from other private schools “lukewarm.” He said some have shown interest, but there’s often a fear that a program like Horizons, which doesn’t directly serve the Friends school students, will “cannibalize” a school’s development efforts on its own behalf. But Slangen said that hasn’t happened at the Friends School.

“We feel there is a lot of opportunity to grow the Horizons network here in the Bay Area,” Slangen said.

Slangen also said the school is looking for more ways to integrate the Horizons community with the broader Friends School community of students and parents. Because the two schools use the building at different times of the year they don’t overlap often, but Horizons families are invited to several Friends school events during the school year like a book swap and craft fair. Slangen said he’d like to find more ways to make these two communities feel more like one.


*This story has been edited to make it clear that although the San Francisco Friends School hosts the Horizons program, it is separate and raises its own funds.

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