By Stephanie Choate
August 1, 2013
The Shader Croft School has taken a novel yet logical approach to summer school—make it fun, and students will want to learn.
“There’s very few middle school programs that are engaging enough that middle school kids really want to do them,” said Steven Hyde, the program’s director. “There’s an ongoing debate as to whether it’s a school or a camp, to which I say, it’s both.”
Twelve Williston students, plus another 24 in Chittenden South Supervisory Union, have taken part in the five-week program for students who need help with literacy skills.
Students choose a topic that interests them to focus on throughout the program—service dogs, bicycle repair, archery, archeology, blacksmithing or, that perennial favorite with boys of a certain age, trebuchets. That topic serves as the basis for instruction in reading comprehension and oral and written expression. Each student also organizes and leads an “adventure” to meet someone in the community involved in his topic.
“Learning is only going to happen when somebody is engaged and thinking and when they have an investment,” Hyde said.
Students then write reports, which are published at the end of the program, and give presentations about the experiences.
Danielle Scribner, who is going into eighth grade this year, is wrapping up her third summer with the program.
“I think all of us like the adventures,” she said. “It’s actually really fun…. We’re all learning stuff on our activities, but we have fun doing the stuff.”
She said her teachers have noticed a marked improvement in her reading and writing skills, and she is also making strides dealing with her stage fright. Last week, she threw the first pitch at a Vermont Lake Monsters game after a stellar fundraising performance, in front of a massive crowd.
“Everyone that has trouble with reading or writing or being in front of crowds should come to Shader Croft, because it will help you,” she said.
Brandi Cote said her son, Silas, loves the program.
“I think it’s helped tremendously,” she said. “If he’s told he has to read a book on something that doesn’t interest him, I notice he has no interest in doing it. But if it’s something he’s interested in learning about, he reads with no problem.”
Silas, who is attending Shader Croft for the second summer, said he can see an improvement in his schoolwork.
“It helps a lot,” he said. “My first year I really needed help. Since then I’m doing a lot better.”
Plus, he added, echoing other students, it’s fun. He focused on water sports this summer, and led an outing to Lake Dunmore to meet a waterskiing instructor and go tubing.
Along with the literacy skills that come with researching and writing about the adventures, Hyde said students gain social skills and broaden their horizons.
“Middle school kids are ripe for having their world expand,” he said. “They want to go out and explore things. It also helps them make at least some statement as to what they’re interested in and who they are, which is very important for kids that age. They’re so concerned about what other people think, they take on other people’s identities instead of their own.”
Shader Croft partners with schools in Chittenden South Supervisory Union. School staff recommends students who may benefit from the program, and Shader Croft approaches those students. The school is asked to contribute $400 per student—25 percent of the cost. Williston asks families to pay between $50 and $250, whatever they can contribute, Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli wrote in an email to the Observer.
“It literally re-ignites many of the students to see themselves as successful learners,” Nardelli wrote. “They gain confidence in themselves and what they are able to learn and accomplish. In many cases they begin to participate in class during the regular school year, whereas in the past they had been spectators to the learning process.”
Hyde said the program averages a 90 percent attendance rate, and 80 percent of students eligible to come back the next year do so.
“One of the challenges in education is attracting middle school kids to learning, particularly discouraged students,” Hyde said. “Here are kids who do struggle in school and we get them to come back to school by their own choice.”