OXFORD, Miss. – Mississippi first lady Deborah Bryant came to the University of Mississippi Wednesday and was met by bright, inquisitive and energetic Oxford elementary students who are enrolled in the Horizons summer enrichment program.
The first lady has made it a goal to travel to schools in all 82 counties in Mississippi, which often ranks near the bottom in national childhood literacy scores, to underscore the importance of reading. Wednesday’s visit to UM made the 50th stop to read to students since she became first lady in 2012, when her husband, Gov. Phil Bryant, was sworn into office.
She met with about 35 students from Bramlett Elementary and Oxford Elementary schools who are participants in the program, which is a partnership between UM and the Oxford School District.
“I enjoyed seeing the students who are participating and also seeing the faculty engaging with these children,” Bryant said. “The children seem to love every one of them. The connection with these students is going to change their lives.”
Horizons is an educational enrichment program serving students who might not otherwise have such opportunities. For six weeks each summer, Horizons students improve their reading and math skills, learn how to swim at the campus pool and take art lessons at the UM Museum. This is the state’s first Horizons program and one of the first housed at a major research university. The program’s goal is to eliminate summer learning loss.
Children start Horizons after kindergarten and are invited to participate for at least nine consecutive years. Horizons works with a variety of community and campus partners to provide an enriching and educational summer experience.
The Horizons program has its own professional lead teachers from the Oxford School District. Teachers have freedom to teach in an environment that encourages them to be creative, resulting in students gaining an average of two to three months’ worth of math and reading skills during the short summer program. Students are also taught to swim, which helps them build confidence and a drive toward achievement that will help them both in and away from the classroom.
Emma Tkachuck, project manager at the university’s McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, serves as the program’s director.
Stephen Monroe, assistant dean of the UM College of Liberal Arts, is founder and board president of the campus Horizons program. He said the first lady’s support is important.
“Horizons is a successful partnership between the Oxford School District and UM,” Monroe said. “The United Way, AmeriCorps and other organizations and individuals make Horizons possible. The children were thrilled to meet first lady Bryant. We were all honored by her visit and we appreciate her support.”
Bryant showed students pictures of the Bryant family and their dog, Maddie, during her visit. She shared insight into their lives in Jackson. She also read from a book called “Corduroy,” which tells the story of a teddy bear who goes to find his lost button in a department store.
The students also eagerly answered the first lady’s questions about what they want to be when they grow up. Some said they aspire to be cheerleaders, models, basketball coaches, scientists, teachers and police officers.
After talking with the students, Bryant noted the program is valuable because it keeps students engaged and learning during the summer while school is not in session.
“This is an excellent opportunity for kids to keep busy and keep learning during the summer,” she said. “I also love the swimming concept to give them confidence to achieve something a lot of children are afraid of. It’s important to have a program like this where people are interacting with them daily and giving them an opportunity they may not have had otherwise. Sometimes kids get a little stagnant during the summer, but this is an excellent learning opportunity for them.”
Giving young students an opportunity to learn on a college campus has been immensely valuable, said Oxford School Superintendent Brian Harvey, who attended the first lady’s visit.
“It offers a summer opportunity that we have been unable to match at the school level,” Harvey said. “They’re able to come to a university campus, which is huge at this age, not only for the immediate future, but the long-term future for these children as well. We’re so happy to be part of this program.”