A Conversation with BellXcel and Horizons National About Rising to the Challenge of Summer 2021

Brenda McLaughlin, Chief Impact Officer, BellXcel and Managing Partner, Sperling Center for Research and Innovation

Dara Rose, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Program, Horizons National

Jill Young, Senior Researcher, American Institutes for Research

Summer provides a unique opportunity for youth to explore their interests, build skills, develop relationships, and have fun. Summer programs have always been adaptable, and Summer 2020 was no different.

Last fall, American Institutes for Research (AIR) developed a short resource that highlights practical examples of how a sample of national and local youth-serving organizations responded to the needs of youth and families in their Summer 2020 programs. The examples we gathered from organizations suggest that summer programs rose to the challenge in 2020 to provide youth and their families with opportunities to experience safety and belonging, develop meaningful relationships with adults and peers, and build skills.

We learned a lot from the summer of 2020 — like how summer programs sought to meet families’ basic needs (e.g., food distribution, access to technology) or how summer programs supported the adult staff who work with youth by sharing resources and offering professional development. Even though there is fervent planning amidst some uncertainty of what to expect for the summer of 2021, we can use what we learned and recognize that we also have an opportunity: we can use summer as a pivot point to build forward together.

We invited Brenda McLaughlin from BellXcel and the Sperling Center for Research and Innovation and Dara Rose from Horizons National to tell us more about how they are thinking about 2021. Below, they outline three main recommendations.

1. Continue to address the basic needs of youth and families.


Last summer reiterated the importance of asking kids and families what they want and need — and how best to reach them. The first thing we did when the pandemic closed schools and youth programs was reach out to our partners to hear directly from them about what their families and kids needed most. We learned through a technology survey that access to devices and Wi-Fi was limited, and that families wanted their kids to have physical materials in hand to help them learn. That information drove our decisions about how to design and structure our remote learning program. We need to continue to engage families and youth and elevate their voices because we can’t assume that we know what kids and families need this summer.


Similar to what Brenda shared, last summer once again brought home the salience of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Without compromising academic instruction and the variety of enrichment activities offered, Horizons programs placed meeting basic needs on the front burner. Providing meals has always been an important role of summer learning programs. In 2020, that meant creating new grocery and meal distribution programs, often with fleets of volunteers or staff driving to central pick-up locations or students’ homes to touch base (at a safe distance) with students and their families and provide boxes of groceries and learning supplies. Horizons programs also addressed students’ basic needs for emotional safety and well-being, focusing on social connection and giving space for students to express themselves and have their experiences validated. After such a challenging year, the emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL) was never so important. We are encouraged to see so many in the K-12 space prioritizing SEL, and to see pandemic recovery-related policy noting that partnerships between families and community-based organizations/out-of-school time program providers are essential to ensuring student well-being.

2. Prioritize relationships between staff, youth, and families.


For sure, last summer also reminded us to prioritize relationships, social and emotional supports, and routines. This cannot be emphasized enough. Trusting relationships and social and emotional health are paramount to children’s ability to learn and grow. Through a survey, young people told us unequivocally that deeper relationships with teachers and peers mattered. They described being able to open up about their problems or needing help; gaining confidence in their academic, social, and technology skills; building a growth mindset; and learning how to stick to a schedule, be more focused, and manage their time. Families also met the challenges of the past year and supported their children’s learning in many ways. We created a family resource center to provide information and resources to ease families’ burdens and arm our staff with quick tips and strategies to support at-home learning.


We also placed higher priority on our relationships with families. Horizons at Home highlighted the importance of authentic, on-going family engagement. Families know their children best, and their greater interaction with their children’s program experience (by helping them log on, often hearing the activities and instruction in the background, or sitting with them while their children participated), gave them new insights that our programs were able to leverage by connecting directly with parents and caregivers to discuss student learning and engagement.

We learned from our Horizons at Home programs how technology can improve engagement by connecting with parents and other caregivers in new ways, at different times of day — from morning Zoom-based “Cafécitos” led by staff at Horizons at San Francisco Friends School, to online “office hours” with the Director at Horizons at the University of Rochester, Warner School of Education.

3. Address issues of equity and barriers to program participation.


It’s undeniable that kids’ and families’ experiences during the pandemic varied widely. When designing your summer program, consider how you can contribute to greater equity in experiences for all youth. For us, this meant ensuring that all of our materials were available in hard copy so kids could participate regardless of technology access. It also meant teachers regularly reaching out one-on-one to every child and family to connect, develop relationships, and guide activities. And we prioritized flexibility in when and how programming was delivered to ensure that families could support their children when they were available.


Centering on students and families requires flexibility. Now more than ever, effective family-school-community partnerships require us to understand the ways our families engage, and build programs based on their needs and preferences. When schools closed this past spring, like those students served by BellXcel, many Horizons students also had challenges with Wi-Fi and technology. So for Summer 2020, our programs eliminated barriers to participation by donating devices, partnering with local districts, providing physical materials, and more. Looking to a mostly in-person Summer 2021, the barriers will be different, but will require the same level of engagement and partnership with families to make programming accessible, equitable, and inclusive.

Also critical to effective partnership in these times is trauma-informed practice. For me, that means practicing kindness and empathy with each other and ourselves. Opportunities for affirmation are critical.

Applying an equity lens to our programs, changing policies, practices and behaviors, takes time — it can be challenging to balance a sense of urgency to take action with the time it takes to be truly inclusive and anchor organizational change in personal growth. 2020 catalyzed important equity-focused discussion for us; it’ll be important in 2021 and beyond to continue to do the work.

Resources for This Summer

Brenda and Dara highlighted key themes about what they learned from Summer 2020 that will be important as we build forward together for Summer 2021. We’ve shared resources and reports throughout this blog that you might find useful as you reflect on last summer. Check out the full list (and others we like) below:

· AIR resource that highlights examples from BellXcell, Horizons National, and other youth-serving organizations on how summer programs responded to the needs of youth and families in 2020

· BellXcel brief on how remote summer programs kept youth, families and staff engaged in learning during COVID-19

· Horizons National report on four promising practices emerging from Horizons at Home

· National Summer Learning Association brief on lessons learned from the field about on summer programs during COVID-19

· Afterschool Alliance results from their afterschool and summer provider survey on COVID-19

· After School Matters report and infographic on lessons learned about teen and staff experiences during summer 2020 programs

We Want to Hear From You!

What lessons did you learn last summer? Share them in the comments below!