A summer education program serving low-income students from Sandy Springs’ public schools is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The Horizons Atlanta program at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School (HIES) teaches students so they don’t fall behind during the break, while also helping them deal with major issues like deportation threats.

Students in the Horizons program at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs take a bow after finishing a performance. (Evelyn Andrews)

Horizons enrolls 135 students each summer to teach them more literacy and math through special projects at HIES Sandy Springs. Students in the program at HIES come from two feeder schools, Lake Forest Elementary and High Point Elementary, both in Sandy Springs. The teachers and instructors come from a mix of the feeder schools and the host school. Many students at HIES and surrounding schools volunteer to help with the program.

The program has grown massively since beginning in 1999.

Vera Woods, a recently retired High Point Elementary teacher, has been teaching at Horizons HIES program since it started and seen it grow from 10 students to 135. It has also grown to expand beyond academics to teaching students empathy and social and emotional intelligence, Woods said.

“You have your little seed and now have we this beautiful mosaic,” she said of the program.

Since the program at HIES began, the nationwide Horizons National organization has opened an Atlanta regional office, now led by former Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan, and eight new host schools began participating, including Atlanta International School in Buckhead. Another Buckhead school is expected to join soon, Wan said.

Horizons Atlanta currently only works with Fulton County and Atlanta districts, but they see the need to serve DeKalb, Wan said.

“The trick is finding a host institution,” he said.

Each host school provides facilities, some teachers and funding, Wan said.

The students are nominated by teachers or chosen because they are performing below grade level. All participants join the program as rising first-graders and commit to stay in the program through eighth grade. Students with a sibling in the program get priority, and some students are allowed after first grade if there are open seats, which usually are created when students move.

A common reasons students move and leave the program is that they often come from transient families who have to leave communities as rents rise, said Kate Kratovil, the Horizons at HIES site director for Horizons at HIES. When that happens, Horizons allows them to continue attending if they can make it with their own transportation, since busing is only provided within Sandy Springs, Kratovil said. They may also join another Horizons program if one is nearby.

During the free, six-week program, students get lessons on math, literacy and emotional well-being, as well as take part in weekly field trips and receive swimming lessons.

Swimming lessons give students the opportunity to take lessons like wealthier peers often do, Kratovil said.

The program also uses a tool to help students recognize their moods and talk about it with peers, Wan said. “It gives students and teachers a way to articulate and think about how they’re feeling,” Wan said. “I think it has paid dividends.”

Horizons at HIES has needed to provide a different kind of support to students and families this year after hearing Hispanic participants frequently talk about their fear of being deported.

Following rumors U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would conduct raids in Atlanta in July, Horizons brought in an attorney to talk with families and give them legal advice.

“This summer the students are really aware and openly talking about it. It is certainly a fear,” Kratovil said. “It helped if nothing else for them to know that we are advocates for them.”

The curriculum already tackles similar issues to give their students a “global perspective,” Kratovil said. They learn about human rights, the United Nations, freedom of opinion and the Holocaust, among other issues.

“It is that mix where we are going to tackle big issues, but there’s also that blend of enrichment where kids refer to it as a summer camp,” she said.

“My unofficial mission is to trick them into learning,” Wan said.

Horizons plans to host a 20th anniversary event at HIES, 805 Mount Vernon Highway N.W., from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 15.