Start the day with breakfast. Browse the book table, enter the lottery to win a Kindle Fire tablet, and enjoy a visit with a guest that will tie in with the theme “Build a Better World.”

Oh yes, and get intensive instruction in reading, math and various essential core skills along the way.

This amalgam of school and day “learning” spa is a snapshot of the program at Camp Fisher, the Mary R. Fisher Elementary School’s five-year old, renamed, summer extended school year and enrichment program. Designed to prevent students with disabilities and learning challenges from falling behind in grade-level reading and math skills, Camp Fisher is serious education. At the same time, it’s far removed from the stereotypical drudgery of summer schools.

The program is built around small-group instruction, incentives, and guest instructors who expose the students to everything from martial arts to environmental conservation- to tie in with this year’s theme. It’s all designed to make kids want to come to school during the summer and continue the momentum they gained during the school year, according to Camp Fisher’s Co- Directors Judy Fairley, Polly Dean, and Mary R. Fisher’s Principal Noveline Beltram.

“It’s important that at-risk students continue getting services during the summer so they don’t regress. But we also want to change things up to keep their attention by making the program fun,” Dean said. “Every half hour they’re doing something different, moving around, getting a good dose of core skills but also working on the computers, painting, writing stories, and doing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) activities.”

Days of variety

This year, Camp Fisher was an invite-only program focused on students who either need help reaching grade-level performance in reading and math. It ran from July 10th to Aug. 3rd from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., Mon.-Thurs. Camp Fisher started with morning classroom activities then continued in 35 minute blocks of academics and a variety of learning activities connected to learning goals and objectives.

In keeping with the theme, Build a Better World, a guest was invited every Thursday to conduct a program that supports the theme: Week one: Our Environment – officers from the Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Department in Thompson used animal pelts and skulls to illustrate their lesson. Week 2: Healthy Body – karate and physical fitness with Mike Bogdanski. Week 3: Our Community – The Community Fire Company had students hop an ambulance or fire truck to learn about the work they do and the equipment they use. Week 4: Agriculture – TMHS alumnus Keis Orr from Fort Hill Farms led a project on planting bean seeds.

Included in the learning fun is Thompson Library Children’s Librarian Kim Flynn reading with the students and introducing them to new books each week throughout the program. Reading is a key component of Camp Fisher, and reading specialists Donna Weaver, Lindsey Exarhoulias, and Barbara Macintosh consulted with Kim Flynn, Judy Fairley, Polly Dean and staff throughout the year to ensure the theme and books are coordinated.

But Weaver and Exarhoulias took it to another level laying out six tables of leveled books, mostly from Savers and Scholastic, to offer students good book choices. A small bag with the slogan “Read Like a Tiger” was provided to each child and the chosen books are theirs to keep and read at home.

Student campers earned chances at weekly raffles for gift cards and an end-of-summer raffle for two Kindle Fire readers, supplied by Jeff Larrow from Horace Mann.

“We’re a positive behavior intervention school (PBIS) and we continue that through the summer to reinforce our Tiger Code,” Beltram said. “Teachers give kids tickets toward the raffle when they’re part of a great discussion in class, or if they demonstrate in school being respectful, responsible and safe. It’s great reinforcement when they can go home and tell their parents they were recognized because they tried their hardest in math, reading, intervention or computer lab. Expectations, recognition then become the norm even without a ticket.”

As all this was going on, the students were working toward educational goals and the staff was getting to the root of their learning challenges.

“It’s like the doctor saying your child needs a healthy diet to grow. Do you stop giving it for nine weeks, then go back in September and give them a dose every day and expect them to catch up? It is very hard to achieve growth in this manner” she said. “During the summer, these kids need the kind of instruction only a teacher can give. They’re not going to maintain their skills from non-educational computer activities, movies and video games.

“All the research shows that at-risk students keep up best when a teacher observes and assesses to see if they’re understanding, and differentiates instruction. The door to learning is different for each child, and the teacher needs that perseverance of finding the right key for the child’s ‘learning’ door.”