Notre Dame Fairfield program helps Bridgeport students close opportunity gap

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — Terrance Berrie still remembers the impact Horizons had on his life as a child growing up in Norwalk.

He followed in his mother’s footsteps and started attending the program in New Canaan as a second grader, spending summers swimming, eating meals together with other children, getting extra help in school and building life skills he wasn’t able to get in the public schools.

“I never would have had that experience if it were not for Horizons,” he said.

Now, he’s a teacher, helping students from Bridgeport have the same experience at Horizons Notre Dame in Fairfield, the latest local Horizons program.

Horizons is a national organization that partners with local schools to help close the opportunity gaps for students from low-income families. It runs Monday through Friday for six weeks in the summer and focuses on academics in the morning and hands-on activities, athletics and specialties — such as art, music and dance — in the afternoon. Social and emotional learning is also addressed with this session focusing on kindness.

“They do get a full range of activities during the day,” said Frank Skawinski, the Horizons Notre Dame site director and Notre Dame teacher. “It’s not just camp. It’s not just school.”

There are also some events during the school year.

Horizons is a free program and it includes breakfast and lunch. Students eligible for the program are identified through a variety of means, including participation in free and reduced price lunch programs. Achievement also factors in, with about two-thirds of the students performing at or below grade level. Teachers and principals at partner schools identify and recommend students though its open beyond that, Skawinski said.

The program at Notre Dame High School started in 2019, about the same time Horizons Bridgeport was formed to help support Bridgeport students and the two existing Horizons programs at Sacred Heart University and Greens Farms Academy. Horizons Notre Dame serves only students who live and attend public or private school in Bridgeport.

Each class has a lead teacher, assistant teacher and intern, who is usually a college student. High school volunteers also help out.

This allows for small group work with one adult working with four students based on skill — something the teachers said they wouldn’t be able to do in public schools because of larger class sizes.

The program helps close these achievement gaps and combat the learning loss that can happen over the summer.

“Here, it’s a mixture of learning and games so they’re excited to come,” Skawinski said.

Teachers usually administer assessments at the beginning and end of the six weeks to gauge progress. He said he saw some students improve the equivalent of nine months in the six-week program. Berrie said he’s also seen more progress among his students in the six weeks than he has in the nine months of the school year.

Ellen Poe, a kindergarten teacher, said this program is especially important after the past year where students learned virtually, or in a hybrid model before switching to in-person. While that was challenging for all students, she said it was especially difficult for the youngest learners.

She said kindergarten is very hands-on and hard to do online, especially teaching students how to write.

“Unless you’re seeing how they’re physically writing and putting things on paper, you can’t figure out where they’re making the mistakes and how to help them,” she said.

There are 62 students in Horizons Notre Dame, which currently serves kindergarten through third grade students. There is one class per grade, averaging 16 students in each class. It started with just under 30 students for kindergarten and first grade. A new grade is added each year as the students age until it is a full K-8 program.

Skawinski said there’s a lot of interest but added its been harder to get students because they got a later start in the first year, they went virtual the second year due to COVID and are continuing to address COVID this year, though they’re able to be in person and follow the guidelines.

“Each year, we get a little bigger,” he said.

Swimming and the usual Friday field trips aren’t being offered this year due to COVID. Instead activities are brought in on Fridays, and the program contracted with Playworks for daily education-based games.

“It’s like recess with a purpose,” Skawinski said.

There’s also a psychologist this year, which he said will continue and most likely expand.

Skawinski said Notre Dame got involved after the principal toured the Sacred Heart program and felt it aligned with the high school’s mission. The proximity to Bridgeport and the current Bridgeport students at Notre Dame also made it an ideal fit. In addition to hosting the program, high school students also volunteer.

Skawinski said most of the students continue the program each year and only leave for extenuating circumstances, like the family moving.

Berrie has followed his students up the grades since they started as first graders in 2019 so he could see their academic progress.

He said the program goes beyond academics to build relationships and introduce the students to life skills and new things, such as grass and planted flowers around the schools. It’s also inclusive with a diverse staff and curriculum so students can see themselves represented.

“It’s teaching them to be citizens throughout life,” Berrie said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com