by Jeanna White
The room is quiet. Heads bowed, faces scrunched in concentration, eight students are busily working — some are reading, some are writing, some are spelling, but all are learning through Camp Pathfinder.
Hosted by the Triad Academy at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC, Camp Pathfinder was created to serve rising first through fifth grade students with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties. Each student receives one-on-one instruction from teachers trained in the Orton-Gillingham Approach which is famed for its ability to help dyslexics and other struggling readers.
In addition to the hour a day of individualized reading and literacy instruction, attendees of the 5-week program participate in study hall and a STEAM activity. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) based activities include nature investigations, pop bottle rocketry, and robotics.
According to Sam Merrick, Camp Pathfinder’s director and a teacher at Triad Academy, the program uses a “whole child” perspective to address learning by providing much more than remediation.
“Offering a variety of activities allows kids to exercise their talents. We want to give them the opportunity to practice anything that they take pride in,” he said. ”These fun activities are like the sugar coating to the educational process.”
Merrick tells parents that the camp is like an inoculation. “You can’t cure dyslexia in five weeks, but this camp provides a start.”
More than sixty percent of the campers also stay for the camp’s afternoon session, which is designed to build self-confidence through field trips, outdoor discovery, arts and crafts, fun games, and sports.
Emery, a rising third-grader at Poplar Spring Elementary, loves the weekly trips to places like the pool and trampoline park, but she also loves going to tutoring and doing her work during study hall.
“I’m learning to sound out the hard words,” she said, a huge grin on her face. “I know I’m going to be able to read harder books when I go back to school.”
Unfortunately, highly successful, individualized training like this is extremely expensive and not widely available.
Camp Pathfinder was established last summer, through a $50,000 grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation, to help reach some of these families, train public school teachers in Orton-Gillingham so that more students can benefit from its life-changing approach, and to create a model that will have a transformative impact on how other organizations and educational institutions teach children with language-based learning differences.
Through the grant, ten area public school teachers received 70 hours of intensive Orton-Gillingham training free of charge in exchange for working with the 20 public school students enrolled in the camp. Teaching at the camp provided the teachers with the opportunity to practice their new skills under the supervision of the Academy’s Orton-Gillingham certified teachers before returning to their own schools and students.
The teachers were surveyed about their experience at the end of the summer, and one Forsyth County teacher wrote, “This experience has taught me so much. The information I learned is invaluable. I can’t wait to start back to school and use it to help my precious, struggling students. I am forever grateful.”
Substantial Improvement Achieved
Every camper received a pre- and post- camp Gallistel-Ellis Test of Coding Skills assessment which measures whether the student can give the sounds for the various letters and clusters of letters and how well the student can recognize and spell words made up of these sounds. At the conclusion of camp, parents were supplied with testing results, a tutor summary, and a list of recommendations. In just five weeks, campers saw an average of a 15% improvement in reading and 34% improvement in spelling.
David, a rising third-grader at the Downtown School and repeat camper, represents one of Camp Pathfinder’s many success stories.
“When I first went to camp, I was very nervous. I didn’t know anyone and I had no idea how camp worked,” he said. “Once I got to know everybody, I started liking camp and it helped me a lot.”
“I have dyslexia. I was one of the lowest readers in my class and could only read easy chapter books. Now I can read humongous chapter books like Harry Potter” David added, a proud smile on his face. “If you have dyslexia, this is the perfect camp for you.”
On an end of camp survey, one appreciative parent commented, “We received [Camper’s] test scores & camp narrative. Wow! We were so impressed with the work he, the teachers, & you accomplished through this camp! Thanks again for an awesome camp experience this year!”
Due to the positive test results as well as the enthusiastic response from both students and teachers, the Mebane Foundation approved an additional $50,000 grant this year, which, combined with other funding, helped to expand the camp to serve 50 students and to train an additional ten public school teachers.
Thanks to “word of mouth” recommendations from last year’s teachers, ads, and contacts with area schools, both the student and teacher slots were filled and a waiting list formed.
Of this year’s 50 campers, 45 are public school students from Davie, Davidson, Forsyth, Stokes, and Yadkinville Counties. About one third are returning for their second year.
The 25 tutors needed to provide the camp’s one-on-one instruction come from Davie, Forsyth, Guilford and Stokes Counties as well Thomasville City Schools, and include reading specialists, EC teachers, and elementary school teachers. Ten of the public school teachers are newly trained in Orton-Gillingham and three have returned to camp because they believe in what is being accomplished and to further hone their skills.
Despite their different backgrounds, these teachers have one thing in common– a passion for their students.
“It’s hard to give up your summer, but with what this training is equipping me to do for my kids, it’s worth it,” said Lori Jensen, a teacher at Meadowlark Elementary who is tutoring at the camp for the second year. She used the training in her classroom last year and saw her students improve academically and gain confidence. This fall she will apply these skills to her new position with NC Virtual Schools.
Renee Bowman, the reading specialist from Poplar Springs Elementary in Stokes County, learned about the program from the parent of one of her students who would be attending. On the first day, she texted her principal and told him that everyone needed the training. She hopes that more teachers from Stokes County will be able to participate in the program next year.
“This is all about meeting kids right where they are,” Bowman said.