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First lady Jill Biden visits New Haven summer learning program

First lady Jill Biden visited a New Haven summer program on Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to kick off their multistate summer learning tour.

The first of the national tour’s three stops was at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, where a Horizons National summer learning program is helping K-3 students reengage with learning after two years of COVID disruptions. The tour’s aim is to highlight how American Rescue Plan funding will help with pandemic-related learning loss.

“I wanted to come see your program because your president cared so much about what happened to you during the pandemic when you were all home and learning on Zoom,” Biden told a group of Horizon students. “I was teaching on Zoom too – but a lot of us missed a lot of time and a lot of days, and it was so hard to learn over Zoom.”

Biden and Cardona spent time with students in two classrooms, reading picture books together, building Lego sets and having conversations about the importance of learning. Biden said it was great seeing young students engage with their teachers in the classroom.

“I just want to thank you all for being here, for listening, for being such great teachers and really to all of you for being such great kids,” she said.

Because of American Rescue Plan funds, Horizons was able to open the summer learning program at Albertus Magnus College in 2021. This is one of 10 Horizons programs in the state and one of 74 across the country.

Jose Oromi, Horizon’s executive vice president, said that by partnering with local districts, they’re able to reach the students who need the most support.

“The entry point for the program is kindergarten, and each year we will take in more students,” he said.

In 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided $140,000, funding the entire summer learning program. This year, ARP contributed $70,000, with the rest covered through other grants.

Horizons is giving 43 New Haven and Hamden K-3 public school students six weeks of intensive summer enrichment programs. Those programs range from reading classes and STEM activities to swimming and field trips. The program is also tuition-free.

Jacqueline Taylor, a New Haven mom with a second grader in the program, said the opportunity is a lifesaver.

“COVID has put a toll on a lot of children with learning, being in and out of school. It’s been tough,” said Taylor, who already noticed a difference in her son’s learning. “He loves it here, especially the swimming lessons. He was a little scared when he started, but now he’s so confident. I have no problems and no worries because I know he’s in good hands.”

Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said giving students a fun and safe space to learn was the whole point of the program.

She said she hopes the summer learning program will help close the learning gap.

“We know just getting kids in school, back to socialization with their peers and teachers, getting that normalcy is critically important,” said Russell-Tucker. “Learning happens every day and everywhere, which is why this summer program is important for us to invest in.”

She said the state expects to have data on COVID-related student learning loss, and how summer programs helped, in the next few months.

Catherine Shen is a Connecticut Public’s education reporter. The Los Angeles native comes to CT Public after a decade of print and digital reporting across the country.