In just a few weeks, as schools across the country dismiss for the summer, a lack of routine and structured activities will cause many students to quickly forget much of what they learned in the classroom over the last nine months. The so-called “Summer Slide” disproportionately affects students from low-income households, who fall behind their peers in early grades and spend the rest of their elementary, middle and high school years playing catch up.

Enter Horizons, a national organization dedicated to giving underprivileged kids access to summer learning and enrichment activities they wouldn’t have otherwise. At the core of the Horizons model is a six-week summer program hosted on campuses of independent schools, colleges and universities who donate use of the space. The curriculum balances reading, math, science and arts classes with swimming and other sports activities. 

“We help fill academic and opportunity gaps for low-income students by providing what their families do not have resources or time for during the summer, and we layer onto that high-quality academics,” said Lorna Smith, CEO, Horizons National.

Students join the summer before Kindergarten and stay onboard through 12th grade, building bonds with teachers and peers and creating a strong sense of community. And, as Smith notes, the Horizons experience extends throughout the year with Saturday academies, family events, counseling and tutoring, and more.


“We like to say most of our work happens to take place in the summer versus referring to Horizons as a summer learning program,” she adds.

The knowledge and experience students gain carry over into the coming school year. Over the last seven years, Horizon students have shown consistent increases in math and reading test scores.

“If these students were not with us, research shows they would be losing two to three months of learning each summer,” Smith said. “That net gain is huge and very real.”

Additionally, 98 percent of students who complete the Horizon high school program graduate from high school, and 96 percent go on to college or other post-secondary training.

The swimming component builds both skill and self-confidence throughout the six-week program. “Most kids come to the pool petrified on the first day, literally shaking, but swimming quickly becomes their favorite part of the Horizons experience thanks to the trust they build with our swim instructions,” Smith said. “Helping kids conquer something that scares them by turning it into something fun they have command over is incredibly transformational and powerful.”

Horizons swimming

Kevin Thompson was one of the kids who was terrified of the pool when he started Horizons in 1997 as a sixth grader.

“But from that moment on, I pretty much became a fish because I never left the water,” he said. Four years later, he won a high school state diving championship and earned a scholarship at the University of Connecticut.

Thompson, now a fourth grade teacher in Westport, Conn., credits Horizons with inspiring him to become an educator.

“Horizons was able to bridge the gap for me,” he said. “This program encourages creativity… instills discipline… cherishes those who put in effort, hard work and perseverance, and motivates children to try new things.”

Expanding Its Horizons

The first Horizons program launched in 1964 in New Canaan, Conn. In 1995, Horizons National was founded to scale the model across the country. Today, the program reaches more than 5,000 kids through 45 locally vested, community-based affiliates in 15 states.

In 2013, Atlanta was selected as the pilot city for a regional, community-focused expansion model to serve multiple schools in a metro area. This summer, seven Horizons Atlanta  campuses – Holy Innocents’ Episcopal, Woodward Academy, Georgia Tech, Atlanta Technical College, Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University – will welcome 425 children from across the Atlanta public school system.

And, according to Horizons Atlanta Executive Director Kaseem Ladipo, they’re just getting started.

“We quickly learned there’s a much greater appetite and demand for Horizons programs across the region than we could have ever imagined going in,” he said.

Horizons logo

Smith adds, “Because we’re serving more kids in a region, we’re establishing more partnerships with community-based organizations and effectively changing the conversation about the summer learning needs of low-income children.”

The support of corporate partners has been critical to the expansion of Horizons. In 2010, The Coca-Cola Foundation – the philanthropic arm of The Coca-Cola Company – provided a $1 million, three-year grant to support Horizons’ national expansion efforts.

“We were able to go to schools and say, ‘The Coca-Cola Foundation gave us this grant, which we’re able to pass on to you for launch funding,’” said Kelly Mattox, director of marketing and communications, Horizons National. “It made all the difference in the world and really jumpstarted our expansion efforts.”

Over the last few years, the Coca-Cola Foundation has provided $200,000 in funding for a nutrition and fitness initiative to be rolled out to Horizons students and families nationwide. Additionally, Coca-Cola supplies beverages and recycling bins to all Horizons affiliates, and Coca-Cola Enterprises Chairman and CEO John Brock chairs the Horizons Atlanta Board of Directors. 

Today, May 20, marks the first-annual #HorizonsGivingDay. The national drive aims to raise $1 million in 24 hours to build awareness and expand the organization’s educational programs to more communities and families. Learn more at