The Changing Role of Camps: School Partnerships Place Camps at the Heart of Educational Reform

by Jim O'Donnell

In New York, more than ten thousand young people spend a month of their summer vacation in a special camping program to help them retain what they learned during the school year.

In Arkansas, a local camp works with school districts to provide an alternative classroom experience for elementary school students who haven't succeeded in a traditional setting.

In St. Louis, more than six thousand students from fifty-three schools study environmental education at camp between September and May.

In Maine, the local United Way administers a grant that guarantees every elementary school child in three separate towns an opportunity to attend summer camp because of its value to the overall learning process.

No longer viewed simply as places for children to have fun during the summer, camps across America are embracing a new paradigm. They are accepting a greater role in year-round education and youth development, recognizing that the same activities and programs they have traditionally offered can be packaged as highly effective alternative learning models. As education officials search for solutions to summer learning loss and ways to provide character education and social development, camps are uniquely positioned to fill the gaps with proven, effective programming.

"There's a lot of overlap between what's happening in education and in camping today," notes Fred Miller of The Chatham Group, Inc., a Massachusetts consulting organization.

"Camp-school partnerships represent a tremendous opportunity for camps to re-establish themselves as an integral part of America's educational reform movement," notes ACA Executive Director Peg Smith in an introduction to the recently published American Camping Association's Creating Camp-School Partnerships: A Guidebook to Success. " As camp leaders, we owe it to ourselves and to the families we serve to embrace this new and exciting direction for our organizations."

An Investment in Camps' Future

When camps first began to offer school programs, most were simply seeking ways to extend their revenue opportunities into the "shoulder seasons." For some camps, the extra cash flow was essential to get them through the winter.

Today, educational partnerships are much more than an alternate strategy for increasing camp revenues. The role of camps in education and youth development has changed. Camps across America have embraced the critical role they play in helping young people learn and grow. They are developing innovative programs that help reduce summer learning loss, bolster academic enrichment and student socialization, provide opportunities for leadership development, and ensure that our young people achieve their full potential.

The investment camps have made in these partnerships appears to be paying off.

  • New York City's Break-Aways program receives funding from the state and private sources to send ten thousand students to one hundred camps each summer.
  • Florida Sheriff's Ranches have expanded their alternate classroom program to twenty-two counties across the state.
  • In Arizona, school camp has driven increases in summer attendance, with 43 percent of students from one school district returning in summer.
  • Indiana's Camp Tecumseh serves 13,000 students during the school year, more than three times the number that attend summer camp there.

The driving force behind these programs is often self-preservation. As extended school years, year-round school, and mandatory summer schools become the norm in more areas, the ability of camps to fill their beds throughout the summer is threatened. Rather than lose their "customers" to other summer priorities, camps are positioning themselves as "summer school options" where young people can find opportunities for learning to come alive. They are tailoring programs to match the academic standards of local school districts and demonstrating how experiential "outdoor" education can be a powerful addition to a school's curriculum. They continue to provide opportunities for leadership development, socialization, and self-esteem building, while translating those efforts into development assets that allow children to perform better in the classroom.

Camps that will be successful in the future will be those that view their programs as viable options in a child's educational and social development. They will work with schools to offer programs and activities that not only complement the school-year curriculum, but also extend the learning process year-round.

Getting Started

Camp directors who have successfully worked with schools report that these partnerships don't require significant changes in camp operations. "Don't remake your camp to be something you aren't," says Cori Welbes of the Florida Sheriff's Ranches. "You need to be true to your mission."

Many camps have found that they can repackage much of what they have always done to align their activities with a school's educational requirements. "Camps need a re-centering of what they offer and a commitment to study and apply the current literature on youth development," explains Miller. "The question camps need to ask is, 'how can we help schools achieve their goals and performance standards in an environment that is stressing test scores?'"

The ACA Guidebook suggests camp leaders ask themselves six questions before pursuing any camp-school partnership.

Why are you doing this?
Is it to boost summer camp attendance or to generate cash flow during the off season? Or, is it to play a larger role in local education and youth development efforts? Only when you convince educational partners of your commitment to worthy learning objectives will you be successful.

Is the proposed partnership consistent with your mission?
Too often, what may seem to be another "great idea" can become a distraction or even a drain on resources. Camps that remain true to their mission usually find that there is a market for their services, especially since they can more easily develop a reputation for quality and consistency when they remained focused.

How will this impact your other programs?
Before starting, be sure to analyze how school partnerships will impact your overall program. Do you have the capacity to do this? Will this require significant program changes? Will it require more staff? Will you still have time to plan, recruit for, and market your other programs?

How well do you know your potential partners?
Take the time to get to know your potential partners. Are they right for you? Do they understand your role in the educational process? What are their objectives and priorities? A common mistake is to assume that a potential school partner is just like you. "Dig deep for hidden agendas," suggests Cori Welbes. "The more you know about each other, the stronger the partnership will be."

How well do you know yourself?
Do you understand your camp's strengths and weaknesses? Understanding what you have to offer potential partners is an essential part of your preparation for creating camp-school partnerships. Take a good look at your facilities, location, curriculum, and staff. Ask yourself how potential partners will view them. Then consider your own management style. Will it work in a partnership relationship? Do you have the time it will take to manage this partnership and are you personally committed to making this work?

Are you committed to this for the long-term?
"It's just as hard to plan a school camp for a week as it is to plan for three months of summer," notes Dave Hilliard, president of the Wyman Center in St. Louis. If you plan to invest in school camp partnerships, it's best to consider it a long-term investment, one that is more likely to pay off down the road.

You'll Need to Learn Educator-ese

One of the biggest problems camps face is that they speak a different language than do schools. "Camps are already 90 percent of what they need to do, but they call it by different names," explains Adam Weiss, one of the founders of New York's Break-Aways program.

Camps talk about activities, while schools speak of curriculum. The terms may be synonymous, yet teachers often look on "activities" as something less than what they themselves offer. Similarly, camps may tend to talk about "fun" experiences and building self-esteem, while schools are more concerned with developing academic skills and outcomes.

Even though your activities may contribute to improved student performance, unless you explain them in terms the school understands, your ability to "sell" your program will be much harder. The challenge, therefore, is to get both sides speaking the same language, so that communication and partnership will flow more easily.

Curriculum Issues

One of the other challenges camps faces in developing school partnerships is knowing how to structure a camp curriculum that is consistent with the school's standards and expectations. The good news is that you may not have to make as many changes as you might imagine.

"Half of what camps regularly do can foster literary skills," notes Weiss. "Singing songs, writing journals or the camp newspaper, and performing skits are all examples of how camps can help young people strengthen their literacy skills."

Other camp activities also lend themselves to academic learning. Upstate New York's Camp Fiver is working to weave both improved literacy and math skill into its programs. Prior to playing soccer, for instance, the campers are required to measure the length and width of the field and calculate its square footage. The camp has also developed a learning library with hundreds of books and a computer lab with ten computers. Learning center activities typically include learning about the components of a story, writing a story or book, research on the Internet, and playing educational computer games.

Among the criteria to be considered in developing an effective program are:

  • Ensuring that your program links to and supports the state's standards of learning that are used to measure schools' performance.
  • Providing teachers with a flexible menu of activities and options that allow them to choose particular activities based on their own interests, where their students are at, or to cover their own weak spots.
  • Incorporating literacy components throughout the program in fun and innovative ways.
  • Varying the length of your program to accommodate different school schedules, budgets, and student needs.
  • Assisting school partners in developing lesson plans they can use to help their students prepare for the activities they will do at camp.
  • Providing optional teacher training classes and classroom visits to ensure a smooth transition from the indoor classroom to the outdoors.
  • Building post-camp lesson plans into your curriculum design to help teachers tie the camp experience back into the class work.

A Guidebook to Success

The Guidebook also provides detailed insights into a wide range of issues, including program monitoring and evaluation techniques, funding options, liability and safety issues, marketing and relationships building, and communications strategies. A resource guide is also provided to help camp leaders access further information they can use to develop successful partnerships.

“We believe school partnerships represent one of the best ways camps can reinvigorate their businesses and strategically position themselves for the future," notes Smith. "For the first time, we have an easy-to-use, easy-to-follow guide that can help camps take their first steps with confidence."

Camp-School Partnerships

From the Simple . . .
The Amphitheater School District in Tucson, Arizona, began sending students to school camps at the Triangle YMCA Ranch in 1980. Today, fourteen different elementary schools participate in the program, sending 120 to 200 students per school for three-day programs. The school camp programs have proven beneficial to the Triangle Ranch in several ways. Summer recruitment efforts have been bolstered as many students who attend school camp choose to return for summer programs. Attendance in summer programs from the nearby Amphitheater schools has risen from only 12 percent in 1980 to 43 percent of Triangle's summer enrollment today. In addition, the school programs keep the Ranch's facilities in use, generating much-needed income in the camp's "off season."

Many camp directors believe that this type of partnership, popularly known as "three hots and a cot," is the easiest way to get started working with schools. The schools handle all aspects of the camping curriculum, including developing and teaching the activities, providing transportation, nurses, and food service, and lining up parents to be counselors. Camp personnel are responsible for facility maintenance, housekeeping, and overall safety (camp staff also supervise the high ropes course during leadership programs). The program is typically done on a shoestring basis, with parent and student groups raising the necessary funds through bake sales and car washes throughout the year.

Camp staff report that safety and liability are two of the most important issues involved in the partnership arrangements. The camp provides a safety manual and workshop for all teachers and volunteers before each school year and insists that the schools provide a written contract and proof of insurance coverage.

To the Sophisticated . . .
Begun in the summer of 1998 with twenty camps and 1,500 children, the Break-Aways Partnerships for Year-Round Learning program in New York City quickly became a model for school-camp partnerships focused on educational reform. Within four years, the program had grown to include more than 10,000 students attending 100 camps throughout the New York region.

Break-Aways was conceived by the former chancellor of public schools in New York City, who wanted to reduce the summer learning loss that students experience during summer vacations. Remembering the positive experiences he had at camp as a child, the chancellor organized an effort to send at-risk kids to summer camp, funded by private donations raised by the board of education and administered by ACA-New York Section. Participating camps were selected through a competitive process and were given three-year contracts to work with individual schools throughout the city.

The Break-Aways model requires students to attend camp for twenty-one to twenty-eight days during the summer. A minimum of twenty students and one teacher attend from each participating school. Each day's activities include an equivalent of three hours of literacy education integrated into the camp program. Most camps also work with the schools to incorporate some school-year programs, including after-school activities, winter vacation programs, or school camps. As a result, participating students maintain regular and consistent approaches to learning that have been shown to increase retention and improve test scores.

Although more research needs to be done to measure the outcomes of the Break-Aways program, early indications are that participating children appear to score higher on standardized tests than those who did not attend camp. Campers also tend to demonstrate higher levels of emotional and social development and leadership skills. In addition, teachers who have participated in Break-Aways programs have been able to apply many of the experiential education techniques they learned at camp to their classrooms.

Jim O'Donnell is the president of O'Donnell Communications in St. Louis, Missouri, and the author of Creating Camp-School Partnerships: A Guidebook to Success.


Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.