ACA’s Raise the Bar Initiative: Capturing the Magic of Camp in Tangible Data

January 2015

Matthew Smith is the camp communications and strategy director at Longacre in Pennsylvania, and cohort leader (along with Scott Brody, owner/director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in New Hampshire, and Ariella Rogge, a director at Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado) of the American Camp Association's Raise the Bar initiative to discover and articulate how the ACA camp community is participating in the transformation of young people, including educational approaches that facilitate the positive development of young people through comprehensive, whole-child collaborations and a focus on outcomes. Smith, who will speak about Raise the Bar at the 2015 ACA National Conference with his fellow cohort leaders, discusses the changing camp landscape and the need for better measuring the magic of camp.

The Class of 2014
An application process ended in March for Raise the Bar's inaugural class of 2014, a group of camps interested in discovering how the camp industry can move beyond intuition and toward articulated, evidence-informed results. ACA was particularly looking for camps actively using either an educational or workforce development context in the services they provide to their campers. Those chosen were placed in a small cohort of camps with the purpose of discovering emerging lessons related to ACA's efforts to expand outcome-based programming as well as how innovative camps are increasing the industry's relevance in education and career development.

What is the Raise the Bar initiative to you?

We often have to have conversations with parents who have never gone to summer camp. In a way, Raise the Bar is a modern attempt to answer the question, "What is the value of camp?" Inside the industry we answer that question in a way that doesn't answer it outside the industry. Raise the Bar is an attempt to articulate what we're doing, and to improve what we're doing through the use of measured outcomes.

Why were you interested in the Raise the Bar initiative?

Longacre is the family business. We are a nontraditional summer camp. We're based on a farm, which puts us in the minority. We've always thought of Longacre as a growth experience. My mother and her partners felt different about what we were trying to achieve, so they just did their own thing. Now it seems that the culture is changing a little bit; the views of education are changing — what Longacre is doing now seems almost en vogue. We joined Raise the Bar because we were excited that we might meet other camps that thought about camping the way we did. We've always really struggled with our messaging and our marketing. It's hard to capture what we're doing in a photograph or a sound bite. The prospect of having outcomes measured was appealing to us. We thought, we have a valuable product here, and it would be wonderful to be able to share that with other camps and influence other kids.

What are you measuring?

At this early stage, we're really still figuring out how and what outcomes to measure, but the youth outcomes battery that ACA developed is an excellent place to start.

As one of the cohort leaders for Raise the Bar, what did you learn this first year?

It has been tough, a little frustrating at times; I was just too busy. I carved out time in my summer to communicate with the camps, and that was a very unrealistic expectation. We're still learning how to interact inside the group. Having said that, for me, just in the past nine months, there has been a ton of enthusiasm, invigoration, and hope. I've talked to many camp directors who feel the same way Longacre does — people who are willing to share, people who care more broadly about kids across the country. So I am really hopeful about what can come out of this effort as we try to draw more camps into the fold.

One of the drivers behind the Raise the Bar initiative is advances in brain science that point to the importance of emotional skills. Can you speak to that?

Broadly, what I can say is that there seems to be a development in understanding around the 21st-century skills (intangible skills) not captured in SATs, ACTs, etc., that can predict a child's academic performance as well as a child's ability to thrive in his or her college community and to roll with the punches and navigate from college into the workforce. That's the value of resilience — of bouncing back after a failure — which is not measured in any of the academic-type tests.

If resilience is so valuable because you get so many rejections before you get hired, for example, then how can we instill resilience in our kids?

As I follow this debate myself, part of me is jumping up and down, waving my arms, and saying, "Look over here! We're doing that." I think the value of camp has been underappreciated, and I can't help but wonder at the role our industry can play in answering the question, "How are we instilling that resilience?"

If you're a camp director already measuring outcomes, why should you consider joining Raise the Bar for the class of 2015? Why not just continue improving your own camp? 

The opportunity to be part of a group of people who are trying to improve their product, their delivery — that is so exciting, energizing, and compelling that what you get out of being part of that community outweighs the information you give up.

This is the way of the future. Measuring outcomes, responding to the data analysis that you get back — that's the way the world is moving. There's a network building, and it won't be too long before they're going to be ahead of the individual camp. Over time, it really makes sense to join the movement. The more heads you have in the game, the better.

Additional Resources
Access ACA's Youth Outcomes Battery
More information on the Raise the Bar initiative
More information on tools to help enhance the quality of your camp program

Class of 2014 Snapshots

Camp Pemigewasset Nature Instruction Clinic

Larry Davis is a geologist and a university professor. He is also head of the nature program at Camp Pemigewasset in New Hampshire. Every summer before camp starts, Larry and his colleagues host the Nature Instruction Clinic, a national training program. Camp counselors come from all over the country to learn how to engage their campers and to feature their camps' environments. Over the past 22 years, the clinic has developed a loyal following. However, Larry has a problem: After the counselors leave the clinic and return to their respective camps, he never sees them again, so he and his colleagues do not know how effective their training is, or what they need to improve upon. Larry joined Raise the Bar for help measuring outcomes.

Camp Fire Camp Toccoa

Throughout her ten years as a director, Elaine Brinkley has had a nagging problem: answering the most basic question, "What does your camp do?" The common response might be a simple sound bite — exactly what the parent wants. But time and again Elaine finds herself answering with a version of, "Well, it's complicated." Camp Fire Camp Toccoa is a traditional camp with a proud 87-year history of delivering Camp Fire programming to youth in Georgia and the American southeast. In many ways it's not unlike thousands of other camps across the continent, offering archery, horseback riding, hiking trails, and swimming in the lake. The difference is, Elaine doesn't think first in terms of activities; she thinks in terms of potential — in terms of growth, skills, challenge, and relationships. The goal? Allowing youth to thrive not only at camp, but when they return to everyday life. These dynamics aren't just sound bites; they are foundational and woven throughout each camp experience, progression, and tradition. Unfortunately, parents generally look for camps based on activities, not on intangibles. Parents don't do Google searches for "potential in youth" or "self-confidence camp." Elaine wants to change that. She began intentionally measuring outcomes to help her communicate the value of the Camp Fire Camp Toccoa experience in a way that goes beyond offering new archery equipment or a new dock. After two years of measuring outcomes, she joined Raise the Bar in the hopes it was a nascent, national movement to change the way we talk about camp.

Camp Kinneret

Camp Kinneret, a day camp in Los Angeles, often hires its former campers. Ryan Rosen, Kinneret's director, believes that the skills needed to be an effective camp counselor are the same skills needed to be effective at most any job: presentation skills, confidence, ability to grow, etc. Nine years ago, however, Ryan realized something troubling: Many of his former campers were unfit to work at Kinneret. This realization sparked a change. The Kinneret directors began articulating high expectations to campers as young as 13. Campers in the Camp Internship for Leadership Training (CILT) program for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders were given a rubric. This rubric specified the skills that all CILTs needed to work on. Then, every two weeks, each CILT camper would meet with a director to compare assessments. When a CILT camper rated herself higher than the director did, the director would take the opportunity to talk about inexperience, about how it's normal to be rated low on something we've never done before, and that it's important to acknowledge our inexperience so we can move forward and grow. Kinneret saw an immediate improvement in its graduates. That improvement has continued each year since, and it's reflected in Kinneret's counselors. This past summer, 64 of 65 counselors were either former campers, former CILT participants, or referred by those two groups. Ryan joined Raise the Bar to find other camps successfully developing self-confidence and leadership skills in their campers.

Outstanding Team and Kingsley Pines Camp

Since 2009, Outstanding Team and Kingsley Pines Camp, in Raymond, Maine, have been partnering to train staff in life skills (such as communication, problem solving, and collaborative leadership.) They have seen lasting benefits as staff become stronger mentors and leaders. Staff see the importance and relevance of the life skills training and they have identified which skills they need to do their job more effectively. Staff training continues to evolve and expand as staff members share feedback. For example, in 2013 two returning staff members asked Camp Director Alan Kissack if they could lead a presentation to help other staff become better public speakers. They cited specific instances where that skill would be useful at camp — performing at campfire, making announcements, recognizing campers at Council Fire, and so on — and identified specific ways staff could improve their delivery to the audience. In 2014, staff ranked their public speaking ability at 3.23 (mean) at the start of training and 4.15 at the end (on a five-point scale). The staff training evaluations included many comments thanking the program for expanding the public speaking training. More importantly, throughout the summer staff utilized their skills and spoke loudly, clearly, and passionately as they acted in skits, announced evening programs, and shared stories of campers' accomplishments. Camp Kingsley Pines joined Raise the Bar to share insights and metrics.

To fill out an application for the class of 2015, visit

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.