Not often do school supply lists include swimsuits, flashlights, and bug spray.
Welcome to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), where all public school students in grades 4-8 have the opportunity to attend summer camp.
Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER fund), 163 MPS students attended overnight summer camp at no cost in summer 2023, and an estimated 250 students will participate in 2024.
The MPS Overnight Program was established to help students rebound from the social, emotional, and physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to April Heding, afterschool arts and humanities manager at Milwaukee Recreation, a department of MPS. MPS values summer camps as essential partners in addressing students’ social and emotional needs alongside their academics, building students’ resilience and confidence as they navigate the complexities of these formative years.
“The overnight camp experience provides a supportive and immersive environment where students can engage in team-building activities, foster positive peer interactions, and develop crucial social skills,” Heding said. This holistic approach nurtures children’s development inside and outside the classroom.
Seven Wisconsin-based camps* hosted students from the MPS Overnight Program, which required American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation.
“This accreditation ensures that the camps we approve for our program adhere to rigorous standards of the overnight camp industry,” Heding said. “By exclusively partnering with accredited camps, we affirm our commitment to providing students with safe, enriching, and well-supervised environments during their participation.”
MPS also hired a liaison to support families as they navigated what was for many uncharted territory, by helping to answer parent and guardian questions, calming their concerns, and preparing them for this new experience. This approach built a bridge between camps and schools, allowing families to trust in the safe, high-quality program.
The model established by the Milwaukee Public Schools is an exemplary camp-school partnership, a mutually-beneficial innovation that increases access to summer camp for children of all backgrounds, especially those with financial constraints. It allows a camp to provide experiences for more kids, and improves the district’s ability to address student needs.
“Each entity brings its areas of expertise and resources to the table for the greater good,” said Mike Simons, Executive Director with Camp for All Kids, which participated in the program.
The American Camp Association has run the Camp-School Partnership Project for the last two summers, in which one of the MPS camps — Camp Whitcomb/Mason — participated. Their summer 2022 pilot partnership demonstrated the value of partnerships and galvanized the MPS Overnight Program.
Sarah Resch, camp director at Camp Whitcomb/Mason, assisted April Heding at MPS in addressing the most common constraint to attending summer camp — finances.
“Expenses related to preparing for and reaching camp can be substantial for families. To safeguard the dignity of students and ensure full participation, we covered the costs of camp tuition, transportation to and from camp, and a camper supply kit for any family indicating a need without necessitating proof of that need. We suggest that school-camp partnerships take this into account, especially when operating within communities facing economic challenges,” Heding said.
For a district where over 84 percent of their students are economically disadvantaged, and 90 percent are students of color, this program affords experiences parents and guardians never imagined. One family with two boys that participated in camp for the first time told the camp director that this summer was life-changing after emigrating from war-torn Venezuela. You can hear more stories of the positive impacts of camp in the MPS Program video.
For Andy Shlensky, owner and camp director at North Star Camp for Boys, it’s clear that camps and schools can make good partners because their missions of positively impacting students are well-aligned.
“We dream of a day where every kid can go to summer camp, and this is as important a step in making that possible as I’ve seen,” Shlensky said.
Simons agrees: “The innovation, leadership and creativity of MPS in their use of time-restricted federal funds to send kids to camp should be an inspiration to districts across the nation. The idea that educational institutions and summer enrichment programs can benefit our young people by joining forces and sharing resources is so powerful, and worth pursuing widely!”
A note from Milwaukee Public Schools: The MPS Overnight Camp program is scheduled to run through the summer of 2024. We are currently engaged in identifying sustainable funding to ensure the program's continuation beyond 2024. Anyone interested in supporting the growth of this program can reach out to April Heding, afterschool arts and humanities manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Participating camps in 2023 included COA’s Camp Helen Brachman, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee’s Camp Whitcomb/Mason, and five camps in partnership with Camp for All Kids (Birch Trail Camp for Girls, Camp Marimeta for Girls, Camp Menominee for Boys, Camp Timberlane for Boys, and North Star Camp for Boys).