HorizonsApr 6, 2020
— updated Jun 24, 2021
The Horizons Program at 25
Our one-of-a-kind experiential learning program celebrates its silver anniversary
To get a sense for just how different Thursday mornings are at Miss Hall’s School, step into the Front Hall at about quarter-to-nine.
On any other morning, one might find a student or two scrambling to get to the day’s first class or heading to the Dining Room for a post-breakfast bagel and some quiet study time. That all goes out the window on Thursdays.
The Front Hall is a beehive, with waves of students surging for yellow buses in the Front Circle. Others hustle in the opposite direction, to waiting MHS mini-buses. Ninth-graders, meanwhile, might linger in the Living Room, awaiting instructions for their assignments on campus.
Adults herd stragglers. “To the buses, sophomores!” one calls. “Have you seen Olivia?” asks another. And so it goes, until each and every sophomore, junior, and senior is heading off campus or settling in to work at an on-campus project.
In North Adams, a nonprofit counts on three pairs of hands to prepare the day’s community lunch. On Pittsfield’s West Side, MHS students help clients access legal resources. At a community center in Great Barrington, the tables are turned, and MHS students guide toddlers in an early childhood classroom.
A sea of tranquility the Front Hall is not. This is Thursday morning at Miss Hall’s. This — is Horizons, the School’s landmark service learning and internship program, now in its 25th year.
Since its launch during the 1995-96 school year, Horizons has grown to include more than 75 sites across the Berkshires. Through Horizons, MHS students contribute an astounding 12,500 volunteer hours each year beyond the MHS campus. Further, Horizons has evolved into a signature program for the School.
“A lot of schools have internship programs, and a lot of schools have community service programs, but no school has a program like Horizons,” says Head of School Julia Heaton. “The structure, curriculum, community partnership, faculty involvement, links with the academic program, and alignment with the School’s mission and the Core Competencies expected in a Miss Hall’s graduate mean this is a truly exceptional program that makes a difference in girls’ lives.”
“We have expanded the idea of what a student can engage with and what that looks like.”
Director of Horizons
Horizons is a four-year program that builds sequentially as students progress through their years at the School. It begins with on-campus community service projects in the ninth-grade, introduces off-campus elements in the sophomore year, builds on nonprofit volunteerism as a junior, and concludes with a senior-year internship typically tailored to a student’s college and/or career interests.
“Horizons is designed for each grade level to be developmentally appropriate,” explains Director of Horizons Alison Basdekis, who has led the program since 2011. “Each year builds upon the experiences of the previous year, and each year provides expanded opportunities to students. As opportunities expand, we also increase our expectations for what it means to be a Miss Hall’s student and how to be an active, engaged participant in the world and their community.”
Introduced to a new community, students stay on campus, working on projects that emphasize team-building; diversity, equity, and inclusion; health and wellness; financial literacy; and media literacy. They participate in Arty Party, developing and selling products and donating the proceeds to nonprofits. They operate the Greenhouse Business Project, which culminates in the annual Horizons Plant Sale.
“Ninth-graders enter the School from many different experiences and educational backgrounds, so we want to root them here first,” says Ms. Basdekis. Projects are designed to establish a strong foundation and understanding of how to serve on a team, work with others, and identify qualities they bring to the table.
“We want ninth-graders to develop a sense of who they are in relation to others and to have an understanding of cultural competency,” she adds. “In Arty Party and the Greenhouse Business Project, we provide opportunities for students to be creative and entrepreneurial in developmentally appropriate projects.”
Students connect with the world around them, stepping off campus to participate in class-wide service projects and participating in workshops that emphasize the history, politics, and economics of the Berkshires. With a basic understanding of the community, they volunteer later in the year in small groups at sites emphasizing community service.
“We start with larger group projects to integrate new students,” says Ms. Basdekis, noting that ten to twenty students typically join MHS as sophomores. In recent years, the class has visited Hancock Shaker Village, learning about Shaker views on work and worship, equality, and their relationship to the land. Students have also learned about Community Supported Agriculture while harvesting vegetables at local farms and gleaning food for area food banks.
“In order to serve a place, you have to understand a place,” Ms. Basdekis adds. “Those first weeks are a way to help students gain an understanding of the dynamics of the Berkshires, as it relates to the different volunteer opportunities they will experience later in the year. They’re learning how to give back.”
Students dig into the nonprofit model, volunteering across the Berkshires. They take on more responsibility, typically working individually or in pairs at their sites. Later in the year, they develop application materials for senior internships and to bolster college applications.
“Junior year sees the introduction of more choice,” Ms. Basdekis explains. “Students are still building capacity as volunteers, but their opportunities expand, and there are ways for them to intersect more closely with a personal passion or a career interest they are really starting to be explore in that year.”
Students begin to build a resume, and they participate in exercises aimed at helping them identify their passions or where college or career interests may lie. In mock interviews, they practice skills they will need when applying for internships and in the college application process.
Horizons culminates in a yearlong internship tailored to college and career interests, and/or their personal passions. Students are expected to make substantive contributions to their sites and, in many cases, their work is added to their portfolios for college and beyond.
“Senior year is the space and place in which students have the most choice and access to something of interest,” Ms. Basdekis notes. “It could be something they are curious about and want to try, or it could be a college or career interest. It could be a project they want to push forward, and that could flow from an interest developed in their course work.”
The overwhelming majority of students intern off campus. In recent years, however, students have had opportunities to pursue supervised, on-campus projects related to personal interests. For example, one student this year is working to develop a garbage can that will compost. She has consulted industry experts, developed plans, and worked to build a prototype.
“Those projects are exciting for some,” Ms. Basdekis adds. “Others prefer the structured experience of site work. In both cases, students engage in meaningful work, in collaboration with adults, to have an impact in the world beyond the MHS campus and to prepare for their experiences after Miss Hall’s.”
Thursday mornings weren’t always this busy
Horizons began as an afternoon program. And, senior internships were voluntary. Both would change as the program gained a firmer footing.
From the outset, the program incorporated all four grade levels, with MHS faculty committees meeting during the 1994-95 academic year to create guidelines for each grade. Ellen Kanner was hired in March 1995 as the program’s first director. A firm believer in all-women’s education — she is an alumna of Smith College — Ms. Kanner brought experience in human resources and career development to the program. She also had connections she could call upon in the Berkshires.
“From the start, you could see the program as having enormous potential,” Ms. Kanner says. “The design was great, we had the incredible wisdom of the Miss Hall’s faculty and staff behind it, and you could see it being a meaningful and important experience not only for the girls but also for Miss Hall’s.”
One hurdle was finding room in the schedule. At the time, Thursday afternoons were “Town Days,” free time for students. Some objected to Horizons cutting into that time, but the program ultimately launched on Thursday afternoons.
Additionally, participation in senior internships was voluntary. That soon moved to “cordially required,” recalls former Head of School Jeannie Norris H’62, H’12, who joined MHS in 1996, the program’s second year.
“I knew how powerful it was for students to experience a classroom beyond those four walls and to be out in the world, applying what they were learning on campus,” Ms. Norris says. During interviews for the Head’s position, she recalls telling the search committee, “If you hire me, this program will not go away.” “The School had already opened the door to the program, and that sometimes is the hardest part,” she adds. “I knew Horizons would be an invaluable experience, especially for girls.”
In 1997, Marcia August succeeded Ms. Kanner as Director of Horizons. Ms. August, too, saw the value in requiring student participation and cementing the program into the culture of the School.
“One of my goals was to build and strengthen the program, because I knew how volunteer work could benefit students,” Ms. August recalls. “I distinctly remember telling Jeannie to give me three years, but that it had to be all or nothing — either everyone does it or no one does it. We made that change my second year and that was a big cultural shift, but it definitely strengthened the program.”
The program also moved to Thursday mornings. Logistics were one reason. “It was difficult to get internships that started at 1 or 1:30 p.m.,” Ms. August notes, and local public schools, integral to the program, would have limited participation, because their days would be nearly over when MHS students arrived.
“I knew how powerful it was for students to experience a classroom beyond those four walls and be out in the world.”
Head of School, 1996 to 2012
The shift, which committed a tenth of the weekly academic schedule to Horizons, was not easy. Again, faculty support proved crucial. “There were bumps, and that’s to be expected with such a major undertaking, but I always admired how visionary and open faculty were to the program,” Ms. Norris notes. “It was a huge commitment, but we ultimately built a more rigorous academic program, even with a reduction in academic time, and the faculty accommodated that.”
As Ms. August recalls, by the 1999-00 academic year, the program was fixed in the MHS culture. During Ms. August’s tenure, Horizons added resume-development and an application and interview process for senior internships. The Greenhouse Business Project expanded in 2006-07, with students creating pottery for the Horizons Plant Sale. The program also became firmly rooted in the Berkshires.
“I am proud of the program’s ability to build the relationship between the School and the community,” she says. “What I am most proud of, though, is that Horizons became solidly anchored in the whole school. People couldn’t see Miss Hall’s without seeing Horizons.” When Ms. August retired in June 2008, annual volunteer hours topped more than 10,000, and nearly 70 sites hosted Horizons students.
“From the beginning, the right person was always there to take Horizons to the next level,” Ms. Norris notes. “Ellen was an entrepreneur and saw the potential. Marcia gave it the structure it needed, and Alison has taken it to the next level, which reflects how service-learning has evolved. During the last twenty-five years, colleges and universities have moved in this direction as well, which is requiring students, before they graduate, to take what they have learned and make a difference in the world.”
During Ms. Basdekis’ tenure, Horizons has indeed flourished, not only in participating sites, volunteer hours, and the geographic range of its partnerships, but also in programmatic elements — the types of experiences for students.
“We have expanded the idea of what a student can engage with and what that looks like,” Ms. Basdekis explains. “At the same time, we have strengthened existing partnerships and the connection between student experiences off and on campus. We’ve also adjusted the schedule and the ways in which we find time for students to reflect, de-brief, and understand their Horizons experiences.”
Horizons goes digital
Horizons is redefining “hands-on” for a digital age
The program has added on-campus projects — MAPS (Mira’s Alliance for Philanthropic Sustainability), Project G.I.R.L. (Gumption in Real Life), Girls Right the World, and the MHS Makes blog have provided opportunities for on-campus experiences with off-campus impacts. And, Horizons will continue to change.
“I am excited about some of the possible collaborations and opportunities,” Ms. Basdekis says. “I see ways for Horizons to intersect with Hallmark courses. There are also strategic partnerships to explore in the Berkshires and beyond. We will continue to look at the ninth-grade and tenth-grade foundational experiences, and there are ways to explore what the eleventh and twelfth-grade experiences look like. This is an incredibly important way to learn. It’s learning by doing, learning by action, and there are ways to integrate with the curriculum.”
Twenty-five years ago, was it thought Horizons would become a signature program for the School?
“I always thought of the vision for Horizons in two ways,” notes Ms. Kanner, the program’s first director. “I wanted it to be meaningful for each student, and I saw it as a way for Miss Hall’s to participate in the larger community. At the end of the first year, I did some calculations, and it was staggering, the hours the girls contributed to the community and to their own development. It thrills me when I think that so many girls have had an experience in Horizons that they just wouldn’t have had anywhere else.”