Making magic occur at children’s summer camp

  • Olivia Skerlj at The Lab School of Washington

(Photograph supplied)

    Olivia Skerlj at The Lab School of Washington (Photograph supplied)

  • Reaching their potential: Katherine Schantz, head of The Lab School of Washington, and the school’s junior high class which includes former Bermuda resident Olivia Skerlj, standing, right

(Photograph supplied)

    Reaching their potential: Katherine Schantz, head of The Lab School of Washington, and the school’s junior high class which includes former Bermuda resident Olivia Skerlj, standing, right (Photograph supplied)

  • Katherine Schantz, head of The Lab School of Washington, in Bermuda

(Photograph supplied)

    Katherine Schantz, head of The Lab School of Washington, in Bermuda (Photograph supplied)


Roberta Alvarez had to leave Bermuda to get the education she wanted for her dyslexic daughter.

Olivia was six when doctors confirmed the difficulties she had with reading, spelling and writing were due to the learning disorder.

Her parents hired a teaching aide in hope that Olivia would be able to cope with her studies, but it didn’t work.

“She was finding it very hard to be pulled out of class all the time to do extra work,” Ms Alvarez said. “The school was only focusing on her weaknesses, not her strengths. Then the school said they couldn’t help her anymore.

“I was devastated. I was out in the car park crying my eyes out, because I was so scared for my daughter.”

Three years ago Ms Alvarez and her husband Peter Skerlj decided the only option was to look elsewhere. He stayed here; she took Olivia to Washington DC so she could attend The Lab School.

It turned out to be the best thing for her.

The nine-year-old is thriving at her new school, and dreams of becoming a runner.

Ms Alvarez is now working to develop similar support for children here.

“We were devastated when we had to move, but there were no schools for dyslexia in Bermuda,” she said.

And then this year it hit her: there must be other children in Bermuda with the same problem as her daughter.

Ms Alvarez approached the school’s head, Katherine Schantz, about holding a summer camp on the Island in 2016. To her delight, she went for it “110 per cent”.

They’ll be in Bermuda this week to talk to parents and teachers.

The camp will be designed for dyslexic children and those with ADD.

“I was thrilled by the idea,” said Mrs Schantz. “We’d already been doing a summer camp in the United States for many years. I thought it would be great to extend it to Bermuda.

“The idea is to give students intense remediation on their academic issues, but to also give them the academic summer camp experience. It gives them a chance to experience those ‘aha’ moments. It is strongly art-based. For example, we might teach mathematical scale, by getting them to do a mural.

“We might teach certain literary concepts by getting them to stage a play. We encourage them to physically draw out processes. The aim is to have the child thinking more highly of themselves after four weeks because they have had successes.”

Mrs Schantz has been working with children with dyslexia for 30 years.

“I got into it through serendipity,” she said. “I was an economics major. I was living in Massachusetts and one day I needed a job and there was a boarding school with an opening across the street.

“I went over there and got a job as a librarian. This boarding school worked with dyslexic children.

“Before I knew it I was tutoring dyslexic children. What I liked about it was the problem solving. Each child is a little different and you just need to find the right programme for them.”

She got a master’s degree in education with a concentration in counselling and consulting psychology from Harvard and became head of The Lab School six years ago.

Most fascinating to her are studies that show how dyslexic children’s brains are wired.

“Children with dyslexia definitely see things differently,” she said. “That is why they sometimes problem-solve well. They don’t have great rote learning, so they always have to understand what they are doing. They can’t take short cuts, but they can sometimes picture things three-dimensionally in a way others can’t.

“Not all dyslexics have these strengths, but many are very inventive and creative. That’s why we help them reach their potential through the arts.

“It’s also a very good way of getting them to collaborate. Sometimes children don’t have enough opportunity to do that because they are struggling so much to catch up in their reading. Luckily, spelling isn’t quite as important today as it used to be in the 20th century. There are electronic dictionaries and auto correct to help.”

She estimated that about ten per cent of any given population has dyslexia, and about 30 per cent of people with dyslexia have attention deficit disorder.

Olivia, who also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, thinks her new school is “awesome”.

“I don’t have enough words to describe it,” she said.

Ms Alvarez hopes the camp isn’t the end for Bermuda. She’d like to see a special school for children with dyslexia.

“Not everybody in Bermuda can afford the tuition of a special school abroad, and not everyone can just up and leave,” she said.

“People who have dyslexia just have a different brain wiring and it comes with many advantages, down the road, but they need to be taught differently. Most children have normal intelligence so they can acquire the same level of knowledge as other children, it just needs to be presented in a different way.”

Unaddressed learning issues tend to lead to prison for people who can’t cope in the job world, she said.

“I have seen the cost of keeping someone at Westgate Correctional Facility quoted at $80,000 a year,” she said. “If that’s true, the cost of starting a school is about the same as keeping ten people out of prison.”

About 20 parents have expressed interest in attending tomorrow’s information session at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, Ms Alvarez added. The two-hour presentation begins at 5pm.

“I expect more will come on the evening. There’s been a lot of interest.

“I’m really pleased that Masterworks’ Art Outreach for Kids programme has donated $25,000 to the summer camp. That’s really amazing of them. We are so grateful.”

A presentation for teachers takes place at Masterworks on Saturday, from 9am to 12pm.

For more information e-mail info@bermudalabschool.org.

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Published Nov 19, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 19, 2015 at 1:35 am)

Making magic occur at children’s summer camp

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