Camp and Year-Round School: Opportunity or Challenge?

by Paul Marsh

In 1968, Park School, in the Hayward, California, Unified School District, became America's first year-round school. Some camps took this calendar change as a threat to their existence as summer providers of youth development programs. Since that time, organizations that provide summer camp experiences for youth have expressed concern about the impact of year-round school on their livelihood.

However, experience and research suggest that camps are well equipped to participate in year-round education at the community level. In fact, the ability of camp programs to effectively meet the development and social needs of youth places camps in a position to be highly effective, active participants in year-round education. The opportunity lies in the active participation by camps in year-round education through outdoor and environmental education programs. Expansion of these programs will expose a greater percentage of the population to camp's benefits. This exposure in turn provides the opportunity to build additional participation in traditional camp programs.

What Is Year-Round School?

The National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE) defines year-round education as the reorganization of the school calendar to provide more continuous learning. The time block of the traditional extended summer vacation is redistributed in the form of shorter breaks throughout the year. NAYRE's definition is actually the definition of year-round schooling. Year-round education represents a learning process that cannot be confined to the time spent in school. 

According to NAYRE's 1998-99 school-year statistics, just over 2 million students took part in year-round school programs. The vast majority of these students attended public elementary schools. In contrast, ACA estimates that in 1999 about 8,500 camps served approximately 9 million American youth. Most campers attend camp for one to two weeks, with some camps offering sessions up to eight weeks in length.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show about 53 million students attended school in the fall of 1998.  Thus, year-round schools represent approximately 3.8 percent of the student population; campers represent nearly 17 percent of school-aged youth. While the number of campers has grown rapidly, 8 percent from 1998 to 1999, the number of participants in year-round schools has remained flat for the last few years.

Understanding the year-round school calendar
Year-round school calendars are as numerous as are year-round schools. These calendar variations, called tracks, are broken into a number of in-school weekdays followed by a number of intersession, or vacation, weekdays. Typical track schedules are forty-five or sixty in-school days followed by fifteen or twenty days of intersession, respectively. Multi-track systems stagger tracks, with a given percentage of students out of school at any one time. The majority of year-round schools use a single-tracked system. Typically, each school adopts its own calendar based on community needs.

Why Year-Round School?

Pressure from declining performance of students in public schools and on state and local government to effectively manage budgets has caused some school districts to look a the feasibility of, or change to, a year-round school program.

The common sense benefit of year-round school is in meeting population growth demands by adjusting the school calendar in order to keep school facilities full throughout the year. The alternative is building new facilities that would have a traditional utilization pattern. Facility utilization is the primary reason that communities adopt a year-round calendar.

Year-round school is also supposed to generate better learning by making education a more continuous process. This increased effectiveness would be reflected in higher test scores.  However, results of research conducted on increased effectiveness is still highly debated. A review of fifteen studies conducted between 1986 and 1996 shows only a very small positive increase in test scores when compared to scores from schools with traditional calendars.

Other justifications for adopting the year-round calendar suggest that social need is a factor. There are social problems related to a lack of parental supervision after school and during traditional length summer vacations. Furthermore, the realities of our education system are declining performance at all levels and a serious deficiency in the ability of our population to read, write and effectively use language skills.

Year-Round School's Impact

Given the statistics, most camps' client base is not likely to be greatly affected by the change in school calendars. If a school system operates with a sixty-day in-school period, that means there will be different children on vacation for a period of twelve weeks over the course of the summer. With less than 4 percent of the school-age population being affected by year-round school and most camps drawing clients from more than one school, the potential impact of year-round school becomes less significant. Furthermore, the traditional staffing base of high school students is very likely to remain intact.

However, camps faced by the impact of year-round school do face real issues. The year-round school summer break lasts anywhere from three to eight weeks, depending on the individual school's track system. Therefore, camps offering four or eight week sessions may need to shorten their session length. Camps with shorter sessions may find it necessary to adjust their session schedules and focus their marketing efforts toward the specific tracks of the schools that are part of their existing client base.

There is no denying that the environment in which these camps operate has changed and that this change may last for some time. With planning, however, these camps can turn year-round school into an opportunity, including the potential for the extension of the camp season.

Opportunities for Growth

Several steps can be taken in order to capitalize on the opportunities that arise from the circumstance of the year-round school calendar in a community.

Get involved in year-round education
The first thing a camp can do is to become involved in year-round education. Camps can turn to one another, to local schools, to their affiliating associations, to professional associations like ACA and the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), and to universities for help in developing outdoor and environmental education programs. Programs can be offered spring, summer and fall if a camp does not have winterized facilities. The educational aspects of these programs can even be used to compliment the local year-round school curriculum. The ACA Standards Program has changed from accrediting just the summer program to accrediting the year-round operation. This evolution provides a national standard for all camping operations. The national standard further enhances the credibility of camping's participation in year-round education.

Stress camp's benefits
Camps should actively point out the established benefits of the camp experience whenever and wherever the chance arises. Research indicates that camp programs that deliberately strive to enhance self-constructs in youth do make a positive difference in self-esteem. Other research indicates that camps do a better job than most schools in meeting the developmental needs of youth. These advantages are a cornerstone to including camp as part of year-round education in a community.

Get involved in the community
If local schools are looking into a year-round calendar, a camp should get involved in helping the community to plan for year-round education. Camping's expertise and experience in youth programming makes it a valuable asset to community decision-making. Becoming involved with the local community and as a partner in education with local schools can provide the opportunity for a camp to become part of the school curriculum through programs that offer outdoor and environmental education. There is also the opportunity to provide traditional camp programs for students during many, if not all, of the intersession periods.

Adjust programs
Finally, a camp should adjust programs to meet the needs or constraints of the client base. If a camp's client base is impacted by year-round school, then summer session length may need to be adjusted accordingly. Those camps that will be most challenged by this issue are those that offer sessions longer than four weeks. With over 50 percent of year-round schools using a single-track system, the actual need for accommodating this issue is likely to be small.

Adopt a Strategy for Success

The threat of year-round school to camping is perceived. Once the issues are examined and understood, the opportunities that actually exist are exciting. That does not mean it will be an easy transition. However, camp teaches the very skills that will allow camps to respond to these opportunities.

The strategy for success is to be active and creative. Camps should attempt to inform parents and educators about the benefits and possibilities that exist in both summer and outdoor/environmental education programs. Being creative in working with the schools, parent organizations, and other community agencies to help develop year-round education  programming that meets the community's needs will also further the cause of camp involvement. Every organization has constraints and shortcomings, successful communities recognize this and work together to take advantage of each organization's strengths.

Be positive, patient, and persistent. Camp offers the resources to help a community meet the needs of youth. After all, it is still about making a difference in the life of a child.

Answering the Staff Challenge

Staffing of expanded programs and seasons may be one of the biggest challenges faced in meeting the needs of a year-round school calendar. There are several potential sources of staffing for expansion of camping programs that can be used in response to the change.

Currently, the number of university recreation degree programs is expanding in America. Typically, many of these students are both interested in working in the year-round education field and are required by their academic programs to participate in internship programs. College students are also a potential source of summer staff who can provide continuity for the length of the summer program. These college students can be assisted by different groups of high school students as they rotate through their intersession breaks. There are also several reputable placement agencies that bring young people from overseas to work in summer camp programs. These firms would likely welcome the opportunity to expand their businesses.

Senior citizens and retired people are another group who are often interested in spending part of their day working in the community. Also, the expansion of the camp program will mean the creation of year-round jobs, with professional staff to deliver programs. Some scholars and practitioners have even suggested working to set up programs with local schools for students to earn credit while completing service work at camps.

Camp Meets Developmental Needs

Camp is successful at meeting the seven developmental needs of adolescence established by the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina; the average school is good at meeting only two or three. The seven developmental needs of young adolescents are defined as: 

  • Positive social interactions with peers and adults
  • Structure and clear limits
  • Physical activity
  • Creative expression
  • Competence and achievement
  • Meaningful participation in home, school, and community
  • Self definition

Thus, parents send their children to camp for self-development and outdoor experience, as well as for fun.

Paul Marsh holds an Honors B.A. in Business Administration from the Ivey School, London, Canada, and an M.S. in Recreation from Indiana University. Most recently Paul was the Coordinator of IU's CORE Program, an experiential education based outdoor leadership program that works closely with Bradford Woods. He serves as a member of the ACA's Research Committee and is also on the YMCA Camp Eberhart Board of Directors where he has been involved since 1972. If you'd like more information, contact pemarsh@alumni.indiana.edu.

Originally published in the 2000 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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