Summer on the Hill

Mayanka Dhingra , Staff Writer

While some students view summer as an opportunity to go far and wide to escape the pressures of academic life, each June the school’s campus is as far as some students need to venture for a meaningful summer experience of their own.

For the past twenty-five years, Summer on the Hill (SOH) has provided an accelerated academic enrichment program for gifted students from public schools in the Bronx through a five week summer program.

In addition to the summer program, from September through June of the academic year, SOH offers Saturday morning classes to help students build advanced skills in Math, Science, and Language Arts.

The goal of SOH is to help their students receive admission to specialized public, independent, or catholic high schools upon their graduation from SOH in eight grade. Former SOH students seeking admission to college institutions have the choice to continue working with SOH throughout high school for standardized test preparation, college trips, information sessions, and one-on-one counselor meetings.

Despite having over 131 public elementary schools, the Bronx has only seven gifted and talented programs for students in grades K-12 run by the National Association for Gifted Children.

In the Fall of 1993 former Head of Horace Mann Phil Foote met with Horace Mann’s former Director of Admissions Gary Miller to find ways Horace Mann as a school could do more for public school students in its surrounding Bronx community.

When Summer on the Hill launched in 1994, the program has just twenty-one rising fourth and fifth graders. Today, the program serves around 250 students across third through eighth grade, helping almost 100% of its students gain entry to private schools and college institutions last year.

Partnering with over 83 public schools in the New York area, public school principles and guidance counselors are able to recommend their students for SOH. The students then have to take an entrance exam before gaining admission to the program.

Having been a student and teacher in the public education system her entire life, Mabel Rodriguez Director of Placement and the High School program and alum of SOH, decided to work at SOH because she knows firsthand how overworked and under-resourced public schools are, especially in the Bronx, she said.

Adriana Hernandez (11) was a student at summer on the hill starting in third grade until before joining Horace Mann in sixth grade. For Hernandez, Summer on the Hill has been meaningful not only for her, but for her entire family, she said. Hernandez’s mom served as  Director of Admissions and Curriculum Coordinator for Summer on the Hill and both her brothers worked at SOH as mentors.

Adriana Hernandez’s brother, Gabe Hernandez (12), explained that the most rewarding part of his experience with SOH was getting to see both sides of the program as a student  and later a mentor, he said. As a mentor you see kids who want to go to schools like Horace Mann, and you understand what it like to be in their shoes and how to guide them, he said.

Muhaiminanal Ashraf (12), who began the program in third grade, would have never come to HM or even thought he would be able to apply private schools if it wasn’t for Summer on the Hill, he said.

On the other hand, Siddiq (11) Nanabawa, an alumni of SOH’s Saturday program before joining Horace Mann in ninth grade, was initially not so enthusiastic about giving up his Saturdays for a program that he thought “would do nothing for him,” he said.  Nanabawa was forced to attend the program because his parents thought it would help him with his school skills and social skills as well, he said.

Despite his initial reluctance to participate in SOH, the program was a life changing experience, Nanabawa said. “If it weren’t for Mr. Parker and the SOH program, I don’t think I would be attending Horace Mann and be the person I am today.”

Iliana Quinones (9) also believes her decision to join Summer on the Hill in third grade had a profound impact on her life, she said. Quinones joined Summer on the Hill in third grade because she wasn’t challenged in her public school, she said. “School is something I’m so passionate about today and SOH made me realize that,” said Quinones.

For SOH class of 2017 Valedictorian, Ericka Familia, SOH was the first time she can remember having to really think hard about her work, she said. Familia knew the work at SOH wasn’t going to be easy, but her eight year-old self made a promise never to quit, she said. Famiilia joined Horace Mann after graduating SOH in 2017.

Paul Wang (11) who volunteered at the program last summer as a mentor, was impressed by SOH students’ hard work each summer and their commitment to advancing their learning; the experience prompted him to reflect on how fortune he is to go to the school, he said.

Vernon Wilson, Chair of the English Department, taught language arts classes to eighth grade students at SOH for the summer of 2014 and 2015. Wilson too was struck by the relentless efforts exhibited by many of his students each day despite the program beginning the week after public school ends, he said.

For Executive Director Markell Parker, the awareness seven and eight year-olds evince about the value of their education is “mesmerizing,” he said. “I had one second grader in a recent admissions interview for SOH talk about uplifting herself so that she could then uplift her family and neighborhood,” said Parker.

Beyond academic life, SOH aims to expose students to extracurricular opportunities they may not otherwise have at their public schools. These activities range from their annual theatre production to sports and studio arts. SOH allowed Jaden Piccirello (10) to discover his love for swimming, something he had never been able to learn before, he said.

Aside from being mentors and counselors, students from the school have found other ways to connect their interests to involvement with Summer on the Hill.

Ahaan Palla (11), Rohan Bhatia (11), and Jeffrey Chen (11) founded the STEAM on the Hill program after receiving the Alexander Capelluto Grant in 2017.  STEAM on the Hill is an extended-day program teaching coding, robotics and video production. The program aims to expose more of their students to technology.

Rohan Bhatia (11) was compelled to start STEAM on the Hill because after starting to study computer science, he wished he had learned to code earlier in life and realized that some kids don’t get the opportunity to learn at all, he said.

In addition to sharing their passions with fellow students, chamber ensemble musicians in tenth grade at the school held the second annual HarMonia benefit concert at Liederkranz Opera Theatre in April and raised over $21,000 for SOH.

According to Mikayla Benson (10), the ensemble decided to support raise money for SOH to support their own classmates that the program serves. For Elijah Shaman (10) the concert was a meaningful and motivating experience because it served a good cause, he said.

Dana Kein, a current SOH student in the college prepatory program, attended SOH from third to eight grade after both her older sisters graduated the program and now works as a mentor over the summer.

“SOH has been so amazing to me and my family. Me and my sisters always say that anything we can give when we grow up will go to SOH and anyone who went through SOH will say that too because its touched us all in so many different ways,” said Kein.

Even six years after graduating, Alejandra Leon SOH ’13 HM’18 still recognizes the impact SOH had on her life, she said.

“Summer on the Hill taught me what hard work really meant. Being so young and committing to going to 6 days of school in a week was a lot, but without Summer on the Hill I would have never thought I would go to such a prestigious high school or college.”