Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School

Summer 2016

By Kamauru Johnson

The building that houses Brooklyn Friends School’s preschool, lower, and middle divisions stands on a quiet one-way street in an otherwise bustling downtown Brooklyn business district. You might not expect to find a school within the maze of construction sites and high-rise apartment buildings. But on most days, dismissal at Brooklyn Friends looks like what you’d see on any other campus. Students bounce down either side of the double stairwell with their jackets and backpacks hanging loosely from their arms. Parents and caregivers scan the crowd hoping to expedite the pick-up process by making eye contact with their children.

Soon after most of the families head home, the building eases into a rare moment of calm. But the stillness is short-lived. A group of students from nearby public schools PS 307, PS 67, and PS 8 arrives, bringing the excitement of their day with them. The kids joke and giggle as they pass the security window and enter the building with confidence. Once again, the lobby is filled with vitality. Although these students don’t attend Brooklyn Friends during the day, it’s clear that they feel at home here, too.

They’re here because they are part of the Horizons Program at Brooklyn Friends School, a tuition-free program that provides academic support and supplementary enrichment experiences to students from families in the Navy Yard area of Brooklyn. The program receives in-kind assistance from Brooklyn Friends, as the host school, and other allies within the education, business, and philanthropic community. Among other things, the program’s existence represents a developing relationship between Brooklyn Friends and other stakeholders in downtown Brooklyn.

Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School is one of 50 affiliate sites across the country that makes up the membership of the larger Horizons National organization. Horizons National was founded at the New Canaan Country School (Connecticut) in 1964 and now serves thousands of kids in grades K–12. Horizons affiliate programs help the host institutions, typically independent schools or private colleges, partner with local public schools to provide structure for six weeks of summer programming and often offer additional support during the academic year. Central to its mission, Horizons hopes to reach students from low-income families who are particularly vulnerable to summer learning loss because of a lack of access to summer programs. Through academic enrichment focused on literacy, STEM, and arts programming, as well as a variety of sports, Horizons aims to reduce the impact of the so-called “summer slide” for participating students and build confidence and other skills that will help them be more successful during the school year.

Programs are self-supported through independent fund-raising, with in-kind contributions of space and other resources from the host institution and guidance from the host school’s administration and trustees.

Horizons at Brooklyn Friends was founded in 2008 with a kindergarten class of 15 students and has been expanding by one grade per year since then. In addition to receiving academic support, students in the program have opportunities for supplementary enrichment activities such as visual art, world percussion, dance, chorus, theater, recorder, and jazz band. Additionally, they participate in swimming twice a week at the Long Island University and St. Francis College pools. Now in its ninth year, Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School will serve 135 students this summer, including 13 members of its first graduating class of eighth-graders.

Institutional Citizenship

Increasingly, public–private partnerships such as Horizons have been highlighted as ways for independent schools to be good institutional citizens. Going beyond traditional methods for promoting socioeconomic diversity, such as financial aid and application fee waiver programs, these partnerships provide more direct opportunities for a school to support students from outside its walls and to reap the benefits that mutual collaboration can bring. By partnering with other stakeholders — public schools, outside businesses, community programs, etc. — independent schools can support greater racial and socioeconomic diversity within their schools and build their presence within the community.

There are many reasons why such collaborations are useful. Perhaps the most often cited benefit is that they allow schools that have an abundance of resources to use their privilege to support a larger number of students. Horizons affiliates report substantial benefits for participants of their programs. Horizons National’s numbers reveal that students, on average, improve their reading and math skills by up to two to three months during the six-week summer programs. They also show measurable improvements in other skill areas. Perhaps more valuable, students’ academic self-confidence increases, as does parental engagement in their children’s learning. These skills often translate into better outcomes during the academic year. Horizons students also show higher school attendance relative to national norms and a 99 percent high school graduation rate for students who have completed the program.

Beyond allowing independent schools to give support to students who they might not reach during the academic year, these partnerships also have the potential to bring substantial benefits to the school itself. Horizons National boasts about “partner benefits” such as motivating alumni and donors, building visibility for the host school, and creating professional development opportunities for teachers from the host school to learn with teachers from neighboring public schools. Horizons at BFS has seen benefits of this type, as well. Many Brooklyn Friends teachers, students, and families are excited about the school’s involvement with the program and have participated themselves by attending events, serving as volunteers, or even seeking employment with the program during the summer months. The school has also seen an increase in recognition from the philanthropic community. Donors who would not have made overtures to an independent school now view Brooklyn Friends as a community partner and seek to work with the school on the Horizons project.

Clearly, these are positive signs. As Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School Executive Director Rachel Webber points out, “The connection is about much more than raising kids’ test scores. We want to build something where the benefits are genuinely mutual. It should be as much about what we can learn from the students as it is about what they learn from us. If it’s not, there are some real dangers.”

This latter point is crucial. Programs where privileged independent schools (or any other institutions) set themselves up to support their communities without seeking to build reciprocal relationships risk falling into the seductive trap of one-sided charity that can limit their effectiveness and even cause harm. To avoid this pitfall, privileged “giver” institutions must work hard to partner mutually with their communities in a spirit of respect and equality that honors the contributions each partner can make.

The principles behind this idea follow trends in the literature. The National Network of Schools in Partnership (NNSP), a leading resource for schools looking to collaborate with community organizations, provides a summary of best practices for public–private partnerships that emphasizes reciprocity as one of the guiding principles. Crucial to the development of healthy collaboration, an NNSP report cites, is “the fulfillment of an authentic community need or opportunity in which all partners both contribute to and benefit from shared learning experiences.”

Without this mutuality, a great deal of potential richness can be lost. In particular, opportunities for flowing exchanges can be reduced to one directional dumps of resources that undervalue the “receiver’s” contribution.

Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity also suggests that when all constituencies are not respected for their potential to add value, the one-sided relationships that result can be misleading. While superficially appearing to be helpful to the target beneficiaries, one-sided relationships can serve to reinforce notions of inferiority, add to a culture of dependency, or even engender divisive resentment between groups. These hazards can easily outweigh any good that is done.

Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School wasn’t immune to these dangers. As an independent school with a relative abundance of resources, Brooklyn Friends has wrestled with these issues of privilege and partnership throughout the program’s existence.

“I think there can be a tendency for people who don’t know enough about us to view Horizons as a charity,” Webber explained. “It worries me because I think that attitude can seep into the way people treat our program and our students.”

There have been moments of difficulty during the program’s history, such as disagreements about the use of Brooklyn Friends resources, reports of microaggressions, and even direct conflicts between Horizons students and Brooklyn Friends students. Despite these challenges, Brooklyn Friends and the Horizons program have remained committed to their mission of cooperation. Though the connection isn’t perfect, Horizons at Brooklyn Friends offers the following lessons that may be helpful to other schools attempting the same kind of partnership.

Active collaboration between the host school and the community builds trust and accountability.

Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School relies on active relationships with schools in the community for support. All new incoming students in the program are recruited as students from one of the three main “feeder schools” — PS 307, PS 8, and PS 67. As students transfer or move, there is some variation in the number of students at each of these schools, but the critical mass of students in each school familiar with Horizons adds to the program’s credibility as a legitimate support for families. Horizons is well-known and respected because of its size and long history of success.

Beyond supplying students, these feeder schools also provide valuable guidance about curriculum and additional information about the students and families that can be used to make the program more impactful. There is constant contact between professionals from each institution. For example, Horizons teachers use public school classroom data from the school year to inform their curricular choices for summer programming. To help address individual challenges, Horizons staff can communicate with a particular student’s home school to see if there is any information that can be helpful. Teachers from the public schools often come visit the program during the summer, attend one of the end-of-summer showcases, or even teach at Horizons themselves.

Parents are an important part of the system as well. They are frequently consulted about how the Horizons staff can best support their children. They are asked to supply feedback through questionnaires and surveys periodically throughout the year. The program has also worked hard to involve parents in event planning and volunteering.

These collaborations demonstrate that the Brooklyn Friends staff, the staff at feeder schools, and parents are equal partners in their work and that each group has a meaningful role to play.

The goal is to build a network of professionals and parents that can provide multiple sources of support for students.

Integrating the program with school life has helped build visibility within the Brooklyn Friends community and create feelings of ownership and belonging for families of Horizons students.

For the first three years of the program’s existence, Horizons programming took place largely during times when Brooklyn Friends students were away. Though the program had had a history of successful outcomes since its beginning, critics and Webber herself pointed out that the model of using school space to support Horizons students primarily during the summer allowed the Brooklyn Friends community to view the program as a separate charity initiative that was distinct from the school.

To help change this impression, Webber and others proposed building a component of after-school programming during the school year that would bring Horizons students onto the campus on a more regular basis. At the time, this represented an unusual configuration for a public–private partnership. While many schools had programs that allowed visiting students to take advantage of their facilities during out-of-school time, few brought the community into the school and consistently shared resources and experiences during moments when school life was active. There were doubts about feasibility and community support for this model, but the proposal was approved in the spring of 2011 and the Brooklyn Friends after-school program was opened to Horizons students later that fall. Since then, Horizons students have come to the school each day from 3:30 to 6:00 p.m. and participated alongside Brooklyn Friends kids as full members in the after-school program. To date, Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School is the only affiliate within the organization to offer this type of programming during the school year.

In addition to creating more steady year-round support for Horizons students, the move expanded opportunities for the school community to interact with the Horizons program. As Brooklyn Friends students have shared hallways and classrooms with students from the Horizons program, interpersonal relationships have developed and more experiences and ideas have been shared organically. Slowly, this increased contact has helped establish Horizons as a legitimate part of Brooklyn Friends and not a separate charity.

That message of validation has been as important for Brooklyn Friends as it has been for Horizons students and their families. The school hopes that the change in perception will help highlight the value of the contributions of the Horizons program and promote the feelings of ownership and inclusion for families of Horizons students that go a long way toward helping create the balance of mutuality that the program strives to achieve.

Privilege must be addressed directly.

At independent schools, issues related to classism, racism, and privilege can stand as tall barriers to effective community partnerships. Integration of the Horizons program into school life created more chances for groups to learn together, but did not ensure that important conversations about privilege could take place. Though these issues are deep-seated and complex, Webber has found that direct discussions of the privilege associated with independent schools in relation to their communities are important for building authentic relationships. “It’s always in the room,” she says, “and we need to confront it.”

Horizons staff have been working to address the topic explicitly. Coordinators facilitate trainings that give teachers a common language to name the privilege and tools to help them handle situations that might arise during the course of their work. They devote time at weekly staff meetings for discussing relationships between students from Brooklyn Friends and Horizons and for working together to address any concerns.

Conversations with students about privilege and respect have evolved more naturally. Staff take what they have learned in their training and apply it directly to their daily interactions with students. The concepts find their ways into the classroom during book discussions, math projects, and science lessons. If there is friction between students, staff can use the common language to help put issues into context.

The emphasis on open communication about privilege puts the topic on the table in a way that isn’t always comfortable, but frankness is required for the relationship between Brooklyn Friends and Horizons to grow. By encouraging students, parents, and teachers to engage honestly in these conversations, the groups hope to cultivate the trust and respect necessary for the success of their common mission.

Our School, Our Community

The conundrum facing independent schools wanting to collaborate effectively with their communities is complex. Establishing a mutual partnership that evens out the asymmetry of financial privilege requires building a balance that is difficult to achieve. The connection between Horizons and Brooklyn Friends remains imperfect, but, for Webber, the growing sense that the Horizons students belong to the Brooklyn Friends community is a source of pride and a marker of small steps taken toward the larger goal of a more honest and reciprocal relationship between the school and the community at large.

“I love that they walk in here as if they own the place,” she says, referring to the Horizons students. “I want them to feel as if this is their school, and I want Brooklyn Friends students to have that same sense that this building belongs to all of us.”

The program has a ways to go toward these goals, but the focus on developing respect for the community as an equal partner has been key for much of its success so far.

Kamauru Johnson

Kamauru Johnson is the upper school psychologist at Brooklyn Friends School (New York) and a member of the school’s board of trustees. He also works with the Horizons at Brooklyn Friends Summer Program as a reading specialist.