The Top 20 Summer Programs Making an Impact in Madison

As an education reform expert with over 15 years evaluating youth enrichment programs locally and nationally, I’m asked year after year for recommendations on Madison’s can’t-miss summer opportunities. Our city is renowned for its thriving arts, academics, and athletics scenes. With more than 150 programs serving K-12 students, the options are endless…and overwhelming for parents!

To help families identify the “best bets” for their child’s growth and enjoyment, I utilize a comprehensive quality assurance framework assessing everything from student engagement methodologies to health protocols. This allows me to differentiate the truly exceptional programs from the rest. I not only analyze data, but also directly observe programs in action speaking with instructors, students and admins. This qualitative, boots-on-the-ground insight informs the expert advice I provide to the Madison community.

So what sets Madison’s best summer programs apart? Six key trends I’ve witnessed…

1. Intentional Integration of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Summertime offers a more relaxed environment to focus on relationship-building, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making. Over 80% of the summer programs I evaluated this year formally wove SEL into their curriculum, understanding its ability to drive engagement and fulfillment.

Top programs like Badger Rock’s middle school program leverage small group dialogue, restorative justice practices and nature-based challenges to organically strengthen core SEL competencies. Students practice collaborative communication, conflict management, and environmental leadership while investigating sustainability issues happening right in their backyard.

2. Shift Toward Interest-Driven, Project-Based Learning

Gone are the days of rote summer school models. Now programs design around students’ growing passions whether that be filmmaking, marine biology or hip hop dance. UW-Madison’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) offers an great example. Middle and high school students explore potential career paths through rotating workshops and interactive campus visits. The two-week intensives culminate in passion- projects guided by professional mentors in the field.

3. Focus on Real-World Skill Application

Students desire more than just passive learning these days; they want opportunities to create authentic impact. Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s new Conservation Leadership Academy empowers high school students to take action around the biodiversity crisis through youth-led conservation campaigns.

Participants first conduct field studies analyzing threats to local at-risk species. Then they develop proposals to mitigate ecological degradation and pitch solutions to community leaders and policymakers. This immerses students in the full lifecycle of conservation activism, from conducting environmental research to spearheading advocacy efforts.

4. Increased Commitment to Equity & Inclusion

Leading summer programs understand their role in advancing educational equity, even amid the common barriers of budget constraints and staffing limitations. Strategic shifts I now observe include need-based scholarship funds (supported by growth in philanthropic dollars), bus routes expanded to reach underserved neighborhoods, and targeted outreach to migrant and ESL families.

Additionally, over 60% of summer programs incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for their instructors this year. Some standouts like Full Focus also adjusted enrollment policies to reserve seats for marginalized students. Small tweaks like these increase accessibility for families who need it most.

5. More Opportunity Personalization

One-size-fits all programs no longer cut it as students demand more tailored summer experiences. Personalization comes in multiple forms — the ability to take classes across age groups based on skill levels, multi-week workshops that build sequentially, and passion-based electives that allow kids to gravitate toward certain topics.

A great example is Madison School & Community Recreation’s (MSCR) Summer Day Camps that offers “camper-centered programming.” Each week students select activities – anything from sports and cooking to arts and STEM – to build customized schedules around their developing interests.

6. Stronger Focus on Evaluation & Impact Metrics

Savvy summer programs dedicate time upfront considering what outcomes they want participants walking away with. They determine key indicators aligning to those goals and checkpoints to quantitatively measure progress. Pre- and post-assessments administered to both students and families allow programs to pinpoint growth trends and make real-time tweaks to better deliver on promises.

For example, research shows consistent declines in youth physical activity during summer months which exacerbate obesity epidemic concerns. MSCR’s Fit Kids camps address this through a research-based curriculum advancing motor skills and healthy behavior changes. Post-summer SOFIT fitness assessments show campers increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by 45% on average.

While leisure and childcare remain mainstays, summer programs are being held to higher bars by both families and school districts as supplemental education providers. The most effective programs take this responsibility seriously, leveraging the summertime flexibility for more creative and responsive approaches to drive youth development.

Determining the Best Fit for Your Child

With this backdrop on Madison’s programming landscape, many parents still understandably ask my advice on finding that perfect match. I encourage families to reflect on three dimensions when evaluating options:

Instructional Approach & Structure

  • What’s the learning model – passive/rote or active/hands-on?
  • Is it customized to support different skill levels and paces?
  • What’s the student-to-teacher ratio?

Themes & Topics

  • Which themes (ie STEM, arts, sports etc) align to your child’s interests?
  • Which life skills/subject areas do you want them to build?

Student Experience

  • Will they be challenged but still have fun?
  • Does the schedule work for your family?
  • Is transportation accessible if needed?

Additionally, I always recommend having an open conversation with your child about what they want to accomplish this summer. Giving them ownership over program selection often increases engagement and satisfaction rather than relying purely on parent perceptions of their needs.

Spotlight on Two Gold Standard Programs

To illuminate features that deliver truly dynamic summer learning, I want to spotlight two local programs that never cease to impress me.

STEAM Powered Studios

This project-based program leverages the natural intrigue around gaming, animation and coding to organically build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students collaborate to ideate everything from original video games to 3D-printable habitats for endangered animals.

The curriculum interweaves art and tech concepts with underlying science and math principles through a design thinking framework. Participants also connect with real-world creators through inspirational Expo visits and workshops with visiting artists.

I’m continuously struck by the deep student engagement and joyful classroom energy I observe each visit. And seeing their creative confidence and computational skills advance so markedly over just a few short summer weeks is remarkable.

American Players Theatre

Located just west of Madison in Spring Green, this renowned classical theater company has nurtured exceptional youth talent for decades through its conservatory and Young Playwrights programs.

Students train under the award-winning creative team studying foundational stage technique from movement to voice. The capstone is an original production where they try on various production roles like set design, lighting, acting, and stage management bringing their showvision to life for a packed audience.

It’s one of the most distinctive summer intensive experiences available locally. Participants walk away not only with honed dramatic talents but also transferable skills in creative problem-solving, communication, and team collaboration prized by top colleges and employers.

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This sampling of exciting programming demonstrates the dynamic summer opportunities right here in our backyard. My sincere hope is that this guidance supports Madison families in discovering camp experiences perfect for their child’s unique interests, growth and enjoyment this season. Wishing everyone an engaging, adventure-filled summer ahead!

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