New summer school program sets up North Philly kids for years of success

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "I didn't have anything like this growing up, but I recognize the power of education," said Keshema Davidson Nathan, the Executive Director of Horizons at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School.

Davidson Nathan remembers having little in the way of extra-curricular resources as a child, having immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. This makes her more committed to investing her time into the next generation. She has spent the last six weeks engaging in activities with kindergarteners and first graders, some of which have never attended school in person due to the pandemic.

"My goal is to ensure that all children have access to what they need in order to be whole people and sort of realize their dreams," said Davidson Nathan.

Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School has recently settled into a picturesque campus bustling with amenities such as a gym, cafeteria, and soccer field. The building was completed in 2019 on the grounds of a former factory. It stands as a beacon of hope in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

Like any school, its doors closed to make way for summer break. However, educators like Davidson Nathan understand that this weeks-long vacation can leave a hole in a student's education.

"There's a normal 'summer slide' that happens in any child in the summertime, just because of the fact that they're not in school," she said. "That is even more drastic in an underserved population."

Once they factored in the setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need was clear. The community at Cristo Rey Philadelphia organized a tuition-free summer school program for 30 children in their neighborhood. Their goal is to bring students back each summer until they graduate eighth grade. Each season will welcome a new cohort of kindergartners, eventually installing a complete K-8 community.

"We hope that in us being in this neighborhood, it will be a catalyst for change," said Davidson Nathan. "A catalyst for other organizations to invest in neighborhoods like this across Philadelphia."

Kids seem to be enjoying their time reading, learning to swim, gardening, and performing yoga.

"I do not want to leave this place," said 7-year-old Haneef Major. "I really don't."

Sadly for Major, this week will conclude the 2021 summer school experience.

While the Horizons program is limited to children in Nicetown-Tioga, Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School itself has opened its doors to students across the Philadelphia region.

"Most of the kids who come here who want to go to a high-quality college-prep program can't afford a high-quality college-prep program," said the school's founder and President, John McConnell. "And we make the school very affordable because of the unique work-study program here."

Each student at the high school spends one day per week working at one of over 95 companies in the region. To learn more about what Cristo Rey Philadelphia offers, visit their website.

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