A New School Summer: Crete's interest-based Cardinal Camps are quintessential summer

A New School Summer: Crete's interest-based Cardinal Camps are quintessential summer

By Tyler Dahlgren

The sun-soaked sights and sweet sounds of summer are both unmistakable and unavoidable while traveling along Iris Avenue in Crete. It’s mid-morning on a sizzling day in June, but Crete Intermediate School is far from dormant. 

No, this place is alive, and on its grounds you’ll find quintessential summer.

Outside, students learn to fish, bike and blaze around the track at a pace capable of leaving any observer exhausted. Inside, classrooms are filled with adventure-seeking students learning new recipes, scrapbooking and navigating their way through intricate escape rooms.

This isn’t your grandfather’s summer school. This is the new-school summer school, and they call it “Cardinal Camps”.

“In the past, we’ve offered a traditional summer school model, where we would work on reading, math and science and the kids who were invited were the kids who were below the academic achievement level or proficiency in those areas,” said Crete Intermediate Assistant Principal Shannon Cole. “But our numbers were dwindling and kids just weren’t too excited about coming, so we discussed the possibility of changing things up.”

With extra ESSER funds ready to be used, the district decided on a summer school revamp. They explored several possibilities, and didn’t shy away from thinking outside of the box when devising a new structure. Superintendent Dr. Josh McDowell wanted it to be available to all Crete students, and Cole, along with fellow assistant principals Sarah Snell (Crete Elementary), Perla Jaimes (Crete Middle) and Marcy Harrifield (Crete High) concurred.

“We wanted to offer something for everybody,” Cole explained. “We landed on this idea for an interest-based camp model where the kids could choose what they wanted to go do.”

The district announced the implementation of Cardinal Camps to a wave of positive feedback from families and immediately went to work in the middle of last year scheduling courses and lining up counselors. When organizers received more than 200 camp proposals, they were floored.

“We sent the Google Form everywhere, to all our staff and through our social media accounts and to all the professors at Doane College to share with their students,” Cole said. “The responses came flowing in. Ideas from people whose interest is fishing or scrapbooking or cooking or whatever. We had such a wide variety of ideas, and that was done simply by asking for proposals.”

Prospective volunteers weren’t the only ones excited about Crete’s new-look summer school. In the snap of a finger, the district had solved its dwindling attendance problem. This summer, there are 500 students enrolled in Cardinal Camps, K-12.

“The best thing has been seeing the kids interact and the joy and excitement on their faces when they’re here,” Cole said. “They’ve just loved it. They come in excited every day, and then they can’t wait to come back.”

Cardinal Camps are completely cost-free and run for eight weeks, with each section lasting an entire week and led by Crete teachers, para-educators, Doane students (six in the intermediate building alone), community members, coaches, etc. Anyone and everyone who wants to be involved can be involved.

“I’m having a blast,” said Clint Zapatin, a bus driver for the district who is currently teaching a group of campers how to play yard games. “I really am. They pick up things quickly. They’re good at it, too.”

It’s been a blast for camp counselors to share interests outside of standard curriculum with the campers, too. Fourth-grade reading and social studies teacher Tristin Smith was chatting with another teacher in the hallway a few months ago when the conversation arrived at their shared affinity for escape rooms. A lightning bulb clicked. Ideas can come quick, and they’re implemented even quicker. 

“It’s so engaging and they have so much fun with it,” Smith said. “Before the escape room, I did a 4-H camp, and that’s something I’ve done my entire life. It’s neat to share those interests with them. I’m teaching about something I’m interested in, and they get to sign up for something they’re interested in, so it’s really a win-win.”

There is a nice balance of academic-focus sprinkled into all the fun, too. Bikes and Books, for example, set students down the road on two wheels with a novel on the hip and reading breaks built in. There have been classes on Fairy Tales, math and creative writing, too. Students haven’t shied away from those, either, but make no mistake about it; Cardinal Camps are flat-out fun.

“Whatever their interests are, if they want to move and be outside, there’s always something for that,” Cole said.

And don’t underestimate the scope of those interests. On this Tuesday, fourth-grader-to-be Naomi Olague is enjoying a personal pizza made only from ingredients that come from the ground.

“Eating, that’s the best part of Cardinal Camps,” Naomi laughs.

Easton Peschong, who will begin the third grade in the fall, takes a bit of his slice and shakes his head in agreement.

“The best part about this summer is all the new things we’ve learned,” Easton said.

In a district with high rates of poverty, they’re intentional about not losing focus on the fun. The students are here to learn new things, of course, but they’re also here to make memories. That’s what summer is all about, after all.

“Many of these kids would never be able to go to Lincoln to do all of these things on their own,” Cole explained. “We’re busing them here to do those things. We’re removing barriers for our kids, and we’re teaching them valuable skills they can continue to use after they leave our camps.”

Students are served breakfast and lunch by the district’s kitchen staff. In fact, anyone from birth to 18 can swing by either of the four Cardinal Camps sites and eat for free. 

“If we want them to come in and do well during school or stay engaged through camp, we have to make sure we’re meeting their basic needs,” Cole said of the decision to provide two meals throughout the summer.

Smith has seen her courses resonate with the kids. She’s watched them grow in her classroom this summer much like they grow from August to May and, honestly, she’s having the best summer a teacher could ask for.

“Just being here is so enjoyable,” Smith said. “We’re still writing and we’re still working together. We’re still kind of in school, but it’s more the fun side of school.”

While the outdoors were hopping and happening, Zapatin’s crew of yard gamers made their way into the gymnasium as temperatures soared into the mid-90s. 

Seeking air-conditioned reprieve from scorching heat, does it get any more summer than that?

“It’s cool in here, and right now that’s the best part of Cardinal Camps,” Zapatin jokes. “The kids are doing great. Seeing them enjoy it, that’s the best part.”