Partnering with Schools: Understanding the Camp-School Connection

Danielle Timmerman and M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.

In 2006, US students ranked twenty-first out of thirty in science literacy and twenty-fifth out of thirty in math literacy among developed countries. A recent announcement by the Obama administration to alter No Child Left Behind has been welcomed by many parents and educators across the nation. Yet, within the camp community, implications of school reform, summer learning, and re-structuring our public education system have been met with more questions than answers. To be responsive, we needed to know how camps contribute to the learning process in children during the academic school year, as well as in the summer. However, when asked about the types of relationships that currently exist between schools and camps, little information is available to answer even the most basic questions related to scope, breadth, and focus of these camp-school partnerships.

With this fact in mind, the American Camp Association (ACA) conducted a survey with all ACA-accredited camps during the winter of 2010 to explore the relationships camps have established with schools and curricula both during the academic year and the summer, the types of programs offered and desired outcomes, and the training intersection between camp staff and teachers. Two-hundred-and-twentyeight (n=228) respondents provided rich information to the camping community about the work being done with schools either as a part of their summer camp program or during the school year.

A Snapshot of Camp-School Partnerships

One of the first questions to answer was "Who is currently connected to schools and to what extent do they program with and for the schools?" One way to begin to answer this question was to determine if camps worked directly with schools during the academic year or summer, indirectly with schools by incorporating aspects of school curricula into their summer camp program, or had no relationship with schools or curricula. Over 34 percent of the camps partnered directly with schools during the academic year; only 7 percent worked directly with schools during the summer; 17 percent worked indirectly with schools during the summer; 37 percent had no relationship with schools; and 21 percent indicated they had other types of relationships with schools that were often unrelated to curricula (i.e., team-building, site rentals, staff recruitment, identification of scholarship campers, etc.) (see Figure 1).

When asked about the timing of programs for schools, the majority of camps who worked directly with schools indicated they most commonly offered their academic year programs in May (84 percent), September (82 percent), and October (81 percent) (see Figure 2). Programs generally lasted two to three days (51 percent), but 49 percent indicated they also offered half-day or one-day programs. Seventy-nine percent of the programs were overnight programs at residential camp facilities, although 66 percent of the camps also indicated they held day programs during the school year. The majority of camps with school partnerships were independent nonprofit camps (34 percent), followed closely by agency camps (27 percent), for-profit (20 percent), and religiously-affiliated (19 percent). The main reasons for offering school-based programs were to generate revenue (55 percent) and to keep youth engaged throughout the year (43 percent).

Not surprisingly, wide arrays of educational- based programs were being taught at camp. The most obvious programs were environmental education and general science curricula, but many camps offered more than just science. For example, over 35 percent offered social studies and 30 percent offered language arts programs. Many camps mentioned teaching other areas such as geology, religion, physical activities, art, and history (see Table 1). However, only 36 percent of camps aligned their program lessons with state and national education standards and only about a quarter of the camps surveyed actually evaluated to see if their programs resulted in actual learning gains or met education standards. Over 88 percent of the camps were not partnering with school districts on educational reform grants or programs, and 90 percent of the camps were not involved with any Title 1, Title 2, or Department of Education programs.

How Camps Make it Work!

Recent financial challenges have required camps to seek out more innovative ways to build camp partnerships and relationships, and schools have always been one of those great partners. For decades, camps have often been the environmental education component of the elementary school curriculum. In other instances, some camps have worked with school groups like student councils to host leadership trainings and retreats. Camps are equipped to make these types of relationships work, but how are camps creating new and innovative partnerships with educational institutions?

One approach to partnering is to redesign how camps and schools work together. According to our respondents, camps are reaching out to schools and trying to best meet their needs through many different program options. Our respondents shared that they have shifted how they work with schools by offering curriculum-based programming conducted by camp staff and teachers to build effective school programs. Over 52 percent of camps still used only their camp staff with school groups, while only 14 percent of school programs were taught exclusively by school teachers on a camp site. However, over one third (37 percent) of the respondents shared the teaching responsibilities between camp staff and teachers when conducting school programs. The majority of camps (72 percent) were working directly with teachers and schools to build customized programs to meet the needs of their students. Approximately 62 percent of camps provided packaged programs or lesson plans from which teachers could choose. Another innovative way to work with schools that appears to have room for growth is to bring camp staff to the schools. Currently 45 percent of camps are going into schools offering either a packaged program or a customized program (see Figure 3).

Another way camps are reaching out is through broadening the type of schools with whom they work. Traditionally, many camps have worked with public school systems, and this tradition is apparent with over 90 percent indicating they already have a relationship with a public school. With the addition of charter schools and a growing number of alternative schools, a door has been opened for camps to increase their partnership capabilities. For example, 77 percent of the camps work with private schools, 45 percent currently work with charter schools, and 35 percent with home-schooled children. This trend means camps are not just working with one school group throughout the year. They are reaching out to many educational institutions to encourage diverse partnerships and alliances.

Some camps have tried other innovative ways of partnering with schools. The following examples are new types of relationships camps have developed with schools in their communities:

  • Partnering with a local community foundation to underwrite a leadership program offered through the local high school called "Youth in Government." This program has been integrated as a key academic component within the high school.
  • Partnering with several school teachers through a camp advisory committee.
  • Partnering with local foundations to build interpretative trails and programs for school-aged children.
  • Developing a "Harmony in the Schools" program delivered by camp staff members to various school districts throughout the state. A variety of topics are chosen by teachers that may include: team building, problem solving, antibullying, cultural diversity, and wellness and nutrition.
  • Partnering with school districts to bring middle school students to camp for a week of leadership and team building in a residential setting.
  • Partnering with groups such as "Take Stock in Children" and the "Breakthrough Collaborative" to teach leadership, independent living skills, and offer tours of local universities to students chosen to participate in their scholarship programs.

What Was Targeted and Documented?

Many camps have developed programs with schools that address developmental outcomes as well as academic learning outcomes. When asked how fourteen common outcomes were targeted and evaluated, responding camps overwhelmingly reported that they intentionally target all of the identified outcomes (see Figure 4). However, the vast majority of camps did not evaluate or document the impact of the camp program on these outcomes. As seen in Figure 4, most outcomes were intentionally targeted by almost 100 percent of all responding camps, but evaluation only happened between 30–40 percent of the time. Interestingly, eight of the fourteen outcomes can be easily measured with measures from the ACA Youth Outcomes Battery. Documenting the learning that occurred as a result of the camp experience can be a challenge for many camps. In some instances, the schools are not interested in the camp evaluating the programs, but many times, the camps themselves do not see the need to carry out a systematic evaluation focused on learning gains. When asked about how learning is documented, over 40 percent of the camps said they didn't know how evaluation was done, and another 22 percent said learning was NOT documented. About 25 percent of the camps said developmental outcomes were assessed, and another 24 percent evaluated content knowledge gains.

Ways to Build Camp-School Partnerships

All of this information begs the questions: "What can camp professionals do to build stronger relationships with schools? How can camps showcase innovative learning methods and environments that address the gaps in our current education system?" The following steps are suggestions that emerged from the information shared in this camp-school connections survey:

  • Evaluate your programs! Many potential partners want to understand how they can benefit from working with camps. Funders and granting agencies want to see empirical evidence that programs work. Measures such as the ACA Youth Outcomes Battery have been specifically designed and developed for camps to use for improvement as well as to showcase the impact of camp programs. This evaluation data will help schools and other interested stakeholders understand the benefits of investing in your program.
  • Align your academic-focused programs with educational standards. Partner with a local school district to build curriculum useful to both you and your school partners. Get teachers involved. Ask school districts where their gaps exist, and you just might find you have the tools to fill it.
  • Offer innovative teacher training courses that address current gaps or issues within your local school system.
  • Reach out to school administrators. Take your program descriptions and data to show your effectiveness and share that with administrators, principals, and teachers.
  • Stay educated! Follow educational reform news. Find education advocates in your area that will help keep you informed of opportunities.
  • Stay updated on federal/state/ local education reform (for federal information visit www.ed.gov). Educate yourself on the needs of Title 1 and Title 2 schools.
  • Follow the US Department of Education news and stay up to date with changes in education legislation such as No Child Left Behind.
  • Think outside the box when building relationships with schools! For example, school principals believe that recess is critical to the learning process in children and has a positive impact on learning in the classroom. However, managing recess is something with which teachers struggle. A creative camp professional has access to materials, energetic trained staff, and innovative resources to help schools maximize play and its contributions to learning.

Partnerships between camps and schools are much more than an alternate strategy for increasing camp revenues. Camps can play a critical role in the changing educational environment while continuing to also be a known site for positive youth development. Camps have innovative programs that can boost academic enrichment, provide opportunities for leadership, and ensure that young people achieve their full potential. Camps interested in exploring partnerships with schools may find ACA's resource, Creating Camp-School Partnerships: A Guidebook to Success, helpful (which can be found as a Word document in the "Education" section of www.ACAcamps.org/education/summer-learning-resources). These partnerships can help camps establish themselves as integral to the American educational system as well as to the learning of every child involved in some type of camp experience.

(For more information on the survey responses, go to www.ACAcamps.org/research/improve/camp-schoolpartnership.php)

Who Participated in the Camp-School Connect Survey?

  • A total of 228 accredited camps responded
  • Affiliation of Camps
    • 23 percent agency (including governmental and municipal)
    • 18 percent religiously-affiliated
    • 25 percent for-profit
    • 34 percent nonprofit
  • Type
    • 20 percent day
    • 44 percent resident
    • 36 percent both
  • Summer Clientele
    • 3 percent boys only
    • 11 percent girls only
    • 74 percent co-ed
    • 13 percent combination
  • Regions
    • 13.4 percent New England
    • 24.2 percent Mid-Atlantic (ACA, Chesapeake; ACA, Keystone; ACA New Jersey; ACA, New York; ACA, Upstate New York; ACA, Virginias)
    • 36.3 percent Mid-America (ACA, Great Rivers; ACA, Illinois; ACA, Indiana; ACA, Northland; ACA, Ohio; ACA, St. Louis; ACA, Wisconsin; ACA, Michigan)
    • 10.2 percent South (ACA, Texoma; ACA, Southeastern; ACA, Heart of the South)
    • 15.9 percent West (ACA, Evergreen; ACA, Northern California; ACA Southern California/Hawaii; ACA, Oregon Trail; ACA, Rocky

Profile of Camps Working Directly With Schools Show They Primarily:

  • Are independent nonprofit (34 percent) or agency (25 percent) camps
  • Employ 1–3 teachers in their summer camp operation (42 percent)
  • Work with over 1,000 students through their school programs (32 percent)
  • Offer programs 2–3 days in length (51 percent) followed closely by half- to full-day programs (47 percent)
  • Work with 2–3 school districts (28 percent)
  • Work with middle school (fifth and sixth grade) students (28 percent)
  • Offer programs that are not tied to state/national learning standards (50 percent)

Danielle Timmerman, M.S., is a doctoral student at the University of Utah. Her main areas of interest are recreation law, building partnerships, and increasing play opportunities for all. She can be contacted at danielle.timmerman@gmail.com.

Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is director of research for the American Camp Association. She can be contacted at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org.

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