by Lettie Stratton
For young students, summer is often a time for swimming, outdoor adventures, barbeques, and playing with friends. But it can also be a time of boredom, TV watching, and idleness. Thirty-six Shelburne, Charlotte, Hinesburg, and Williston middle school students are instead choosing to spend five weeks of their summer…back in school?
Well, not exactly. “I’m often asked if Shader Croft is a school or a camp,” says the program’s Co-Founder and Director Steve Hyde, “to which I say, ‘yes!’” The school-camp hybrid has lofty but specific goals focused solely on increasing the literacy of at-risk youth. Hyde says “at-risk” can mean anything from academic to physical, economic, or other struggles. Shader Croft’s model of learning is student-centered, experiential, and community-based. “It’s a private school model for public school kids,” Hyde says.
So how does it work? Each student identifies something they wish to learn about at the start of the program. They find a community partner who’s an expert on the subject, reach out to them, and set up a visit. “Student interests range from entrepreneurship, to mountain biking, to psychic phenomena and more,” Hyde says. A recent host visit brought a group interested in medieval warfare to a site to shoot off trebuchets.
Host interaction is key to the Shader Croft model. Adventures are not meant to be an in-depth study of a subject but rather a method through which essential learning skills such as summarization, reading comprehension, oral expression (a topic Hyde says is often neglected by schools), and a strong vocabulary can be developed. Hyde, who is technically retired after being in education for 30 years, sees literacy as the basis for all learning. “If you don’t have those skills, you’re in a box and you’re not getting out,” he says, “and summer is a waste of time for a lot of kids.”
According to Hyde, research on summer learning loss and the achievement gap illustrates that two-thirds of learning loss occurs in the summertime. Affluent students generally continue to learn and grow while disadvantaged students are more likely to decline. When school starts back up, the groups have traveled in opposite directions, making it extremely difficult to find common ground in the classroom. “There are very few programs that work well for middle school students,” Hyde says. “Learning is not as focused as it needs to be for developing minds. We tend to think of growth as something that’s sustained over a long period of time. But growth is really a constant process of up and down.”
Inspired by the Paradise Project at Edmunds Middle School, Hyde created the Summer Literacy Program at Shader Croft School in 2001 with his former Edmunds colleague, Eric Mortensen. Since then, the program has seen impressive growth. In the last four years, the program has grown from 11 to 36 students, from one to three sites, and from two participating schools to four. For 36 students, there are 12 educators at Shader Croft—an impressive 3:1 student-teacher ratio.
About two months after the program’s end, Hyde distributes surveys to students, teachers, and parents for feedback about progress made at Shader Croft. The testimonials are nothing short of glowing. “My son returned to school in the fall not only with improved writing and reading skills but a greater confidence in himself because of his experience at Shader Croft,” said parent Liz Shook. It’s clear that true progress is made in a short period of time and that authentic, lasting relationships are built as well. Pam Deyette, another Shader Croft parent, said, “I think my son would have been one of the children lost in the system if he hadn’t gotten the chance to prove he could do it at Shader Croft.”
In the final written expression component of the program, students are asked what they see and know that others need to understand. Through this, they realize that their ideas and thoughts are significant and worthy and their inner confidence builds. “Learning is empowering,” Hyde says, explaining that as soon as students begin to realize that they’re just as capable of learning as everyone else, they’ll no longer see their place as in the margins. Instead, they’ll move to the center and begin to develop. “Often times, these kids don’t believe they can learn,” Hyde says. “We all want to be able to demonstrate our competence.”
Repeatedly expressing his gratitude toward the SCHIP Grant and the Redducs Foundation, both of which support Shader Croft, Hyde concluded that the program offers a natural way of learning. “Our challenge is to sustain the model,” he notes. Want to learn more? Visit www.shadercroftschool.org.