Alumni Spotlight: Mike Di Marco, Horizons Greater Washington

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Mike Di Marco is the Executive Director of Horizons Greater Washington. Di Marco participated in our Spring 2014 Certificate Program. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Di Marco about his extensive work to close the opportunity gap for low income students in the DC area and his organization’s unique model, as well as his experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in education?

Di Marco: I attended Duke for college and I thought I wanted to study foreign policy. I did an internship after my sophomore year in foreign policy and I realized that this wasn’t it for me. Unlike an issue like education, I felt that there aren’t too many people in the country who can have a real impact on foreign policy and I realized I didn’t want to be one of them. The summer after that, I worked at a multiservice community agency in Baltimore. People would come in for a variety of things, housing, accessing healthcare, seeking employment, etc. When I was there, I realized a common thread among all of these issues was education. I noticed that so many of my clients had dropped out of school. Their lack of a degree led to the various barriers and challenges they were currently facing. Along with that realization, I had an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing in my spare time at school. All of my volunteer experiences involved working with kids and working in schools. My free time in college was spent tutoring, serving younger students and it was something I really enjoyed.

For the past thirteen and a half years I’ve been doing that work. The time students spend outside of school is so important. Kids spend the majority of their time outside of school, and at Horizons we work primarily in the summer learning space. What we have found is that kids learn at similar rates during the school year but during the summer, kids from well-resourced families are able to have other types of learning experiences that consolidate their learning. However, students from lower-income families often do not have access to those opportunities. Because of this, we see learning gaps widen during the summer and compound year over year—this is known as summer learning loss. At Horizons, we have been able to not only prevent summer learning loss, but drive summer learning gain, and create a virtuous cycle of achievement for our students and families.

CPNL: Horizons Greater Washington works to overcome the opportunity gap for students from low-income families with a focus on inspiring children and building community. How does this model prepare students for success?

Di Marco: One thing that makes Horizons really unique is our nine-year commitment to students and their families. Students enter our program as rising first graders and they are with us until they are rising ninth graders. As you can imagine, that long-term commitment is incredibly impactful. We are with our students during critical transition periods. Because of this long-term commitment, we ensure they are on track for grade level reading by third grade, on track for algebra by eighth grade etc.

Another unique aspect of Horizons’ model is our small classrooms led by experienced teachers. In a classroom we have fifteen students and three teachers. And these are not just any teachers, they are highly qualified teachers, 76% of our teachers had master’s degrees this past summer. There is high-level, completely individualized student support during the summer. Our model is also project-based. The students are not just sitting in a room, they are really learning and exploring through hands-on projects. Even with our virtual summer program in Summer 2020, we were able to implement project-based learning. We worked with volunteers to compile and deliver over 300 “Horizons at Home” kits so students could maintain that hands-on experience during Zoom classes. This experience helped Horizons better engage students in their classes during the summer—ultimately driving learning and academic gain.

The other really special part of Horizons is swimming. This is important for multiple reasons. First, swimming is really fun for our students. It’s the summertime and while we do a lot of hard work, we also have fun. Second, we know there are so many inequities surrounding swimming and water access in this country. A lot of our students, in addition to being the first in their families to go to college, are the first in their families to swim. It is a source of empowerment for our students and their families. A quick anecdote, we have an alumna and her email address is [her first name], so you can just see the lasting impact that the program had on her. Third, swimming is not only fun and builds essential life skills and survival skills, it also fosters socio-emotional development. As someone who was an athlete all throughout high school and college, there were a lot of things I learned through sports that I was able to translate into the classroom. I became a better student because of athletics, I distinctly remember in high school saying to myself: you wouldn’t quit in an athletic match, so why are you quitting on this math problem? The same thing happens for our students.

CPNL: The COVID pandemic has drawn attention to educational disparities and created barriers to accessing educational opportunities for marginalized students. How can the nonprofit sector work to address these challenges?

Di Marco: COVID-19 has exacerbated the disparities our organization works to address. We live in a city that is rife with inequity. The wealth gap between black and white families in DC is enormous. In DC, only 69% of students graduate high school and there are huge disparities in college going rates by race. Nearly all White residents have graduated high school and attended at least some college. For Black and Hispanic families, high school graduation rates are lower, and only about half of DC residents have attended at least some college. These inequities already exist and have been exacerbated by historic policies, redlining, unequal access to jobs, health outcomes, etc. I participated in a summit about racial equity in the DMV and I remember someone asked, “Where do we start? There are so many issues, housing, health, police brutality” and the panel replied “yes, you start working on all of them. These issues are systematic and there needs to be progress across the board.” I think as a sector, we need to understand that while we focus on education, we are affected by all of the issues as well. I can’t tell you how many calls, texts, and emails I received from alumni and families who were impacted by COVID. During the pandemic many of our families were facing food insecurity so we delivered weekly groceries to twenty of our families this year, that isn’t something we would normally do but it is something that we needed to do because our families needed that support so they could focus on their children’s learning. Like I said, we have a nine-year commitment to our students and their families. As families turn to Horizons, we become a part of their family. I think this all to say that as nonprofit organizations we need to look at the broader picture. We need to understand our role and our mission in all of this, but also collaborate with other organizations to maximize our impact. We don’t work alone, we collaborate with several organizations. In my role, I am trying to encourage more collaboration with other nonprofits so we are able to address the myriad of needs that our students have. One of the frustrations I have is that we all want collaboration in the nonprofit sector. But I don’t think it is genuinely incentivized. I get frustrated by how few funders work to bring organizations together and help facilitate partnerships. We are collaborators, but realistically we are also competitors because there are limited resources. Unfortunately, that competition can become a dominant force at times, rather than prioritizing collaboration. I hope, as the nonprofit sector, we can come together to meet the enormous need in this region.

CPNL: What is one accomplishment you are particularly proud of since leaving the Certificate Program?

Di Marco: I am very proud of our work this summer. We pivoted to a Horizons at Home program, where we had over 300 students participate virtually in our program. We were able to continue project-based learning because we delivered over 300 Horizons at Home kits to our students. We went in with specific goals. We wanted to achieve 50% student attendance because that was about what we were seeing in schools last spring. We also wanted students to submit one assignment per week. By the end of the summer, we had over ⅔ of students attending each of our two daily synchronous sessions , average daily attendance was 79%, and students were submitting 3.86 assignments per week (nearly 4x what we expected). These were the results of our incredibly small, but mighty team’s focus on providing engaging and meaningful programming for our students and I’m proud of these accomplishments.

In addition to that, we basically launched a small school district this summer through our virtual program and the virtual outreach. 93% of Horizons students said the program helped them with their reading, and 88% said that Horizons made them enjoy reading more. I started as the Executive Director January 27th 2020, and by mid-March we had a COVID shutdown and had to launch a completely new program to serve our students, and I think we did that very well.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Di Marco: I think the Certificate Program was incredibly impactful in my life. I cannot believe the exponential growth I was able to achieve during the three months of the program. Even in response to COVID, I find myself coming back to the readings and the teachings from the program. Responding to the pandemic required fundraising, strategic planning, volunteer management, program evaluation, and all the things I learned in the program. The experiences and conversations we were able to have provided that knowledge. In addition to the access to resources and readings from the program, the continued access to that information through the alumni newsletters have all been invaluable. They are resources I come back to time and time again.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Di Marco: It is an incredibly valuable experience. I encourage people to do it and really make a commitment to the process. The accomplishment shouldn’t just be adding the Certificate Program to your resume, the accomplishment comes from really carving out the time to engage with the readings and peers in the classes. Give yourself the opportunity to have the space to fully engage and participate. Each day of class was like a month of growth. The guest lecturers, the class sessions, the assignments, it was all beyond my wildest dreams, honestly. In addition to the classes, save some time to process the sessions. I remember sometimes I would come home after each day and send a long reflective email to my boss about the day and how it related to a problem at work. It is an enormously beneficial experience.