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Kiki Sweigart engages Kamora (facing camera) and her sister Kamiya Conyers during a reading exercise at Horizons camp at Ashley Hall on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. The 6-week camp is a partnership with Mitchell and Memminger elementary schools in "making summer fun and productive." Wade Spees/Staff

Thirty young girls from public schools in downtown Charleston are in their fourth week of a six-week program at the Ashley Hall School, where they've gone on field trips, honed their reading and math skills, and built Lego robots.

But ask any girl and she'll probably tell you the highlight is swim class.

"I swim really well," said Zhariya Spann, a rising second-grader at Memminger Elementary.

It's all part of the free Horizons summer enrichment program, which has served kids from low-income communities in the United States for 54 years but only recently arrived in South Carolina.

Program Director Kiki Sweigart got involved with Horizons 39 years ago as a swim instructor at a program in Connecticut, and she found that the swim lessons helped build students' confidence, which carried over into the classroom.

Some of the girls were first-time swimmers when they started the camp. Now they venture fearlessly into the deep end of Ashley Hall's indoor pool as Sweigart paddles beside them.

"For me, it's pure joy watching kids learn," Sweigart said. "To be able to teach a child how to swim and have them enjoy learning in a different realm, and to keep their brains learning, is just the best experience."

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MacKenzie Ritter and others campers played bells, castanets, and drums accompanying a classical piece of music at Horizons camp at Ashley Hall on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. The 6-week camp is a partnership with Mitchell and Memminger elementary schools in "making summer fun and productive." Wade Spees/Staff

When Sweigart took a job as a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Ashley Hall, she knew she had to bring the Horizons program to Charleston. As she shopped her idea around, Mitchell Elementary Principal Debbie Smith loved the idea of a summer program with a proven track record.

"This was not 'learn-as-we-go.' It's a well-established program," Smith said.

Launched in 1964 at New Canaan Country School in Connecticut, Horizons has a few things that set it apart from other summer programs dedicated to stopping the dreaded "summer slide" — the well-documented tendency of students to lose ground academically over a long break.

The leaders of Horizons encourage families to commit to a full eight summers in the program, which serves rising first- through ninth-graders. Once they're in high school, students may come back as paid summer counselors. Charleston's program launched with a group of rising first- and second-graders from Memminger and Mitchell elementary schools, and it will add a grade every year.

Nationwide, the program gets results. Using the STAR Early Literacy test at the beginning and end of camp, teachers have found that students gain an average of eight to 12 weeks' worth of learning in reading and math — as opposed to their peers who don't attend summer camp and tend to lose ground.

Horizons costs about $1,800 to $2,000 per student, according to Eric Strickland, a board member at Ashley Hall and executive director of the program. He said the specific costs are still being tabulated for this summer's camp in Charleston, and they will be paid by private donors from the school and local businesses.

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Zhariya Spann learns to float on her back with help from Maggie Lancy during Horizons camp at Ashley Hall on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. The 6-week camp is a partnership with Mitchell and Memminger elementary schools in "making summer fun and productive." Wade Spees/Staff

Adrienne Wilson said her daughter, 6-year-old Mackenzie Ritter, wakes up excited about camp every day. A rising first-grader at Memminger Elementary, Mackenzie was selected by Horizons leaders who visited her kindergarten class.

Wilson was grateful for the opportunity, which meant she would not have to pay for summer camp for one of her two children while she works full time. Mostly, she was glad that the teachers saw what she already saw in her daughter.

"They liked her energy, and they still do. She’s an awesome kid," Wilson said. "They liked her energy, her attitude, her positivity."

Shannon Laribo, who works in Ashley Hall's admissions office and serves as a reading specialist at Horizons, said the curriculum lets her meet students where they are academically. She said she already has seen them improve their literacy skills and self-confidence.

"I want them to have ownership of their education," Laribo said. "I want them to feel in control."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.