The annual Horizons Reading Challenge, a book marathon for BFS Lower School students who want to help raise money for Horizons at BFS, is officially under way.
Horizons at BFS is self-supported by funding from individual donors, foundations, and corporations. The annual Reading Challenge is an important supplement to that. “It costs $3,200 per student to attend Horizons,” said Executive Director Rachel Webber, “so we’re very appreciative of the Lower School student and family support. Last year’s Reading Challenge raised more than $30,000.” She’s hoping to smash that figure this year. You can sign up your child by going here.
An academic enrichment program serving low-income public school children living in the Brooklyn Navy Yard area, Horizons at BFS is an affiliate of Horizons National, a nonprofit organization in existence since the 1960s, that partners with independent schools and collegesacross the country to work with public schools in their communities. “The goal is to provide the academic support that children need to stay on grade level, while simultaneously offering a rich and diverse enrichment curriculum,” Rachel explained. “Our Horizons faculty engage students in experiences that enhance self-esteem, encourage social-emotional growth, build problem solving and critical thinking skills, and foster a lifelong interest in learning.”
BFS is the first New York City independent school to partner with the organization, and we’re the only one of 50 participating schools nationwide that has an Afterschool component, welcoming Horizons students every school day. “This is extraordinarily progressive for an Independent school,” said Rachel. “It shows the commitment BFS has to not only the program but to our school’s mission.”
As the school’s Auxiliary Programs Head, Rachel was initially part of the planning committee that decided Horizons would be a good fit for BFS. Two years into the program, Rachel took leadership roles in administering it, eventually becoming its Executive Director. Today she works closely with Horizons Program Director Caroline Segarra, in addition to their other roles at the school.
“There are several reasons why Horizons is important to me,” said Rachel. “I believe that every child has the right to succeed in life. I have really high standards for programmatic excellence, and Caroline and I strive for the best educators–many are BFS teachers–so we can achieve the best outcomes. All our data shows that our students are on track academically.”
Given Rachel’s artistic background and passion for the arts both in and outside of BFS, that element of the program is particularly appealing to her. “The arts can be a game changer for some people, as it was for me,” she explained. “Uncovering interests, enabling talents and exposing kids to all kinds of artistic opportunities are a major part of what we do.” As a measure of success she points out that two Horizons at BFS students were accepted into Ballet Tech, a highly competitive dance academy in Manhattan, after they took our summer program with partner organization the Mark Morris Dance Group, and they took ballet in BFS’ Afterschool Program. “They would not have had those opportunities if it weren’t for Horizons.” She is effusive in her praise for all of her students. “I know all of them and their families very well,” she said. “Horizons students come back for nine consecutive years, from Kindergarten through 8th grade. That’s a big commitment, but we have an 85% return rate and we’ll have 135 students this summer. That’s an indicator of success.”
The Reading Challenge as a fundraising event was spearheaded by Horizons at BFS board members and BFS parents Pam Kiernan and Lauryn Small. Pam came up with the idea initially as a modest project just for her own kids. She had been invited to join the Horizons at BFS board by chairman Joe Chan in 2011. “We were very much still in the building phase but we needed to start considering new funding sources for a fully built-out K through 8 Horizons program,” she said. “Rachel, Head of School Larry Weiss and I spent an afternoon brainstorming fundraising ideas and it was really important to me to try to come up with something that Sean, my son who was in Kindergarten at the time, and I could do together. Out of the brainstorming session the Horizons Reading Challenge was born.”
Lauryn encouraged her own kids, Luella and Iden, who were Sean’s classmates, to commit to the challenge the following year, and the year after that it evolved into an initiative for the entire Lower School. “I loved the idea of getting my kids involved as a way of doing service in their own community,” Lauryn said. “And of course it got them to read more books.” She further explained her passion. “I fell in love with the idea that a private school could partner up with low income public school children from the same neighborhood to offer an academic enrichment program.”
Rachel stresses, however, that Horizons isn’t mere charity, and that the relationship is symbiotic. The Horizons Reading Challenge encourages our own Lower School students to read purposefully and the Horizons at BFS program helps the entire community. “Many BFS teachers get a chance to be involved as teachers during afterschool and throughout the summer program, and the Upper School students’ volunteer experiences have proven to be meaningful. Many return summer after summer, even through college,” she said. “Through the Afterschool program, Horizons at BFS provides an opportunity for real interaction between students of differing racial and economic backgrounds and fosters dialogue around differences. We’re popping the bubble that both populations live in.”