This story was originally published in the Fall issue of Parker Magazine

By: Heather Gray, Dr. Robert Gillingham Head of Lower School and Erika Assadi, Head of Integrative Programs 

Horizons at Francis Parker School launched last summer on the School’s Mission Hills Campus. It is the first chapter of Horizons National in San Diego. Horizons is a national network of locally vested chapters that offer a high-quality learning experience outside of the traditional school year and also supports academic achievement and healthy youth development. The program welcomed 15 young students to Parker for an unforgettable summer of learning opportunities. The year-round program continues for the students with monthly meetups during the school year. 

Recently, Heather Gray, the Dr. Robert Gillingham Head of Lower School (HG), sat down with Erika Assadi, Parker’s Head of Integrative Programs and Horizons at Francis Parker School Executive Director (EA), to discuss the launch of the new program, the opportunities afforded to participants, and both the short and long-term goals of Horizons at Francis Parker School.  

The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

HG: Erika, to begin, can you tell us a little bit about Horizons at Francis Parker School? 

EA: Horizons is a network of transformational educational programs that aim to put students on a path to success, both in school and in life. Horizons’ mission is to advance educational equity in collaboration with the students, the families, communities, and schools within a region to provide out-of-school experiences that inspire the love of learning.

This past year, we joined their network of more than 60 affiliate sites, and we became the first school in Southern California to partner with Horizons National by creating Horizons at Francis Parker School. We welcomed 15 students––it was a blended class of junior kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students. 

HG: That’s wonderful. Can you explain the process needed to bring Horizons to Parker?

EA: It’s been a long process, and we’ve been very grateful every step of the way. We began initial conversations with Horizons National leadership in September 2019. We wanted to see what the program aspects would require and what the potential partnership would be. In October 2019, we created an exploratory board that consisted of the Parker Leadership Team, Parker Board members, Parker faculty, and external community members. We looked through the program from various lenses and created an implementation plan to launch the program; however, the work was put on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But that didn’t stop us. We knew that this program was significant to bring to San Diego. We reignited the work efforts in January 2021, solidified our partnership with Horizons National in March, and soft-launched the program in Summer 2021. 

HG: I’m on the board, and it was such a wonderful, collaborative process. Can you talk about what students the program serves? 

EA: One of the most significant factors for a successful collaboration is a partnership with schools. We looked at local schools and assessed the distance, the student demographics in connection to Parker, and we decided to partner with Nye Elementary School as our first school. With the help and support of Nye’s principal, faculty, and staff, they identified several students to apply for Horizons at Francis Parker School. 

They needed to meet four specific requirements: the first was qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch; the second was that out of the 15 students, two-thirds needed to be performing below grade level; the third was that the students would have to benefit from the program because we are providing an additional opportunity, not only for one year but for multiple years; and the fourth factor was a strong commitment from the families––we needed these students to attend all the programs each day, not only during the summertime, but when we meet up during the school year. It’s not a one-year commitment; it’s an ongoing commitment until they graduate eighth grade. 

HG: How long do the kids come in the summer, and what are the monthly check-ins like throughout the year? 

EA: The summer commitment is six weeks. It’s a full-day program where we provide lunch, transportation, enrichment opportunities, and a focus on academics. The ratio is five students to one teacher, so as you can imagine, we are really focusing on each student and making sure that educational gains during the summertime are happening. During the school year, the collaboration continues. We try to meet once a month, and we call those “meetups.” It’s an opportunity for the students to continue accessing and visiting different organizations throughout our community in San Diego, and also an opportunity for us to connect with their families. 

HG: What was the most recent meetup? 

EA: We’ve done two so far. On the first one, we went to the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park because the students were learning about dinosaurs in the summer. On the second one, we went to the San Diego Zoo. The students love animals, and we were able to get a guide, rode on the kangaroo bus, and had a fantastic time. 

HG: Are the parents a part of those as well? 

EA: They are! We also will have informational sessions and opportunities for parents to advance their own education through our meetups. 

HG: Can you talk about how this program ties into the Division of Integrated Programs? 

EA: The Division of Integrated Programs supports Parker students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12 and the Horizons program as it evolves and develops year after year. Right now, Horizons will end at Grade 8, but we strive to help the students and their families get into high schools and colleges as well. That’s a long-term goal, and beyond that, I think it is an opportunity for Parker to be a good community member and a leading organization here in San Diego as we partner with schools and organizations throughout the city. The program strengthens our commitment to supporting students, our mission, and our public purpose.

HG: Can you talk about a personal example of something that stood out to you from this summer? 

EA: How much time do you have? Overall, the program was very inspiring and there were moments when students would light up because they were able to take supplies home that they did not have, or there was a student who loves coding and was able to share his love with his peers to inspire them to learn to code.

One particular moment is imprinted on my mind. Swimming is a big part of the Horizons program––not only does it develop confidence that translates into the classroom, but it is a life-saving skill that can sometimes be challenging for students. One student would get dressed just like all the other students, and once we got to the pool, he would not get in the water. We had lots of conversations over several weeks, we read books, and ultimately what we learned was we needed to build trust with this student, which takes time. One day, the student put on his swimsuit, got on the bus, got to the pool, and the reading specialist jumped in the pool with him, and the initial moment when his body touched the water, that moment and that laughter will always be in my mind. It was such a special moment to witness. We had many of those moments because a lot of these experiences are the students’ first. 

HG: The joy in that classroom was always magnetic when I would see what they were doing. Could you talk a little bit about the staffing of the program? 

EA: The ratio was five students to one teacher. We had a reading specialist, a lead teacher, an associate teacher, and an aide. The results this past summer were so incredible. We do formal and informal assessments throughout the program, and with Horizons National, we use a program called “STAR” for formal assessments in both literacy and math. What we learned is that all the students improved their academics in all areas. On average, about 30 percent of their performance increased from the first week of summer to the last week of the program. 

Also, a big part of the program is social and emotional learning. We had the students go swimming and play music. They had a lot of science, technology, engineering, and math activities interwoven into the curriculum. They also visited the Elementary Institute of Science, which is another example of how we partner with different organizations in the community. 

HG: What are the short and long-term goals of the program? 

EA: Short-term goals include growing the program with 15 kindergarten students each year, so in 2025, we will have 75 students participating in Horizons at Francis Parker School. Long-term, by 2030, we will have our first graduating Grade 8 class and have impacted the lives of 150 students. Ultimately, our goal is to—going back to our mission—inspire a love of learning and help the students make a meaningful difference in the world. 

To learn more about Horizons at Francis Parker School and how you can help support the program, visit https://www.horizonsatparker.org or contact Erika Assadi by email at [email protected]