Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the March

2, 2005 issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Letter from Camp Diversity

Every kid should have something to write about in those infamous "What

I Did Last Summer" essays that are a universal staple of the first

week of school. So predictable that they form the basis of any number

of jokes, the essays are no laughing matter for kids who have done

little more than watch television from late June through Labor Day.

Summer Explorations Computer Camp, a four-year-old camp for

economically disadvantaged Princeton middle school students that makes

liberal use of Princeton University’s resources, was founded in

response to just that issue. Marjorie Young is the director of

Community House, the organization that runs the camp. "The idea came

from a teacher at the Johnson Park school," she says. He was

distressed to find that some kids had no material for the essays,

while their more fortunate classmates were able to fill notebooks with

tales of summer fun and adventure.

Now, thanks to Summer Explorations, 50 middle schoolers from low

income Princeton families who might otherwise have nothing to write

about can pen accounts of building robots in Princeton University

labs, becoming fluent in Spanish or French, and getting a behind the

scenes look at everything from newspaper publishing to the design of

high-concept housewares for Target stores.

The experience is so rich, in fact, that a number of middle class

parents have sought admission for their youngsters. Last year about 10

of these kids joined the fun, and this year there will spaces for more

children whose families can afford nearly any camp option, but who

choose this camp, which was designed for what Community House calls

"underserved" children.

Community House was founded in 1969 by an interracial group of seven

Princeton University students in response to demographic data that

showed far lower levels of academic achievement among black residents

of Princeton than of white residents and far higher representation in

substandard housing. Initially located in the Witherspoon Street

neighborhood, the center is now housed in the Carl A. Fields Center on

campus, and operates under the dean of the undergraduate school.

Community House runs a plethora of programs in addition to the

Explorations camp, including a camp for elementary school students,

tutoring, English as a second language instruction, kindergarten and

high school readiness, SAT prep, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Funding

comes from a number of sources, including Princeton University,

grants, and donations.

At the heart of the camp is multi-faceted computer education featuring

Robolab, an educational system in which the youngsters write programs

on a computer and then transfer them to a programmable Lego brick, the

RCX. The system contains motors, gears, and sensors that can make the

robots turn, rotate, reverse directions, stop, start, and respond to

their environment. The work takes place in the university’s

engineering labs with paid student counselors providing instruction

and encouragement.

"The kids built a whole village," says Young. "It was amazing. Lights

flashed, garage doors opened and closed."

While the Robolab is the part of computer instruction that gets the

campers the most excited, every one of their educational activities

involves computers in some way. "They write poetry, and then they

animate it," Young gives as an example. "There is also PhotoShop,

videocasting, Internet searching, and basic computer skills." Whether

it’s research, writing, or building Lego race cars, a computer is

never far away. That’s the way it is in adult life, and the youngsters

have to be prepared, she says.

Day trips all involve some facet of technology. "We’ve been to CNN and

to ABC studios," says Young. "We went to Dow Jones." Another trip was

to Honeybee Robotics, where the kids saw how a mouse that went to

space was designed. "And we went to Michael Graves’ offices," she

says. "They showed the kids how they design products for Target and

how they use technology to build houses."

Another important educational facet of camp life is language

instruction. There is immersion instruction in both French and

Spanish, and over the course of the six-week camp, July 6 through

August 12, students make great progress in making another language

their own. There are also poetry slams that take place after spoken

word artists visit from New York. This year for the first time there

will be Yoga. Young hopes to include African dancing and drumming as

well.

"Our goal is to expose them to things they haven’t been exposed to,"

she says. "We want them to explore, to travel, to try new

instruments." Keeping things interesting is especially challenging

given that the campers are sixth to eighth graders, students famous

for a "what? me impressed?" view of life. Polled for what activities

they would like to see more of in camp, the youngsters, many of them

smack in the middle of major growth spurts, and perhaps conserving

energy for that effort, requested more down time. Young was happy to

oblige, stocking up on cards and games.

The campers also play tennis, on the university’s magnificent courts,

and swim at the Community Park pool. Until this year all campers, most

of whom are recommended by teachers of guidance counselors, had to

sign on for the full six weeks. This year, bowing to student requests

for time off, the Explorations camp is broken up into three two-week

sessions. The charge for "underserved" kids is $100 a session, and

financial aid is available.

Middle class children who attend the camp pay about three times that

amount. Before admitting these "market rate" campers, Young listened

to requests for years. "They would say ‘my child is a techie, but she

loves the arts too,’" she recounts. Often the children had heard about

the camp from a friend who was enrolled. Stressing, again and again,

that the camp is primarily for children who could not otherwise afford

the experience it provides, she says that she finally relented last

year, and admitted higher income campers.

After one camp year, her assessment is that "both groups benefit."

Parents of middle class campers tell her that the camp was the first

true experience of diversity their children have ever had. In some

cases the children are enrolled in private schools, but even if they

attend Princeton public schools, they do not spend much time with

children from different economic circumstances. "At camp the kids are

together all day; they eat together," says Young. Divided into groups

of 10, they really get to know one another.

The economically disadvantaged campers are Hispanic, African American,

and, increasingly, Asian. The middle class campers are Asian,

Caucasian, and African American. In both groups, says Young, "A lot of

parents love the academic focus."

Education was the focus of her own upbringing. A native of Haiti,

Young immigrated at age 11 with her mother and three of her siblings.

None of them spoke a word of English. She brushes aside the difficulty

of the journey. "Look at Italian Americans, any group," she says. "One

person comes first, and makes a major sacrifice. My mother came to

provide a better life for her children."

Her mother, Bertha Toussaint, had been a teacher in Haiti. In her new

home she became a housekeeper in Princeton Hospital, while at the same

time making education a priority for herself and for her children.

Toussaint now works in quality control at Artegraph, a North Brunswick

biotech.

Young’s career path, fueled by higher education ( a B.S. in psychology

from Douglass, Class of 1989), was inspired by her first experience

with an American grammar school.

"We went to St. Paul’s," she says. "When we arrived the church put out

a request in its bulletin, and in the newspaper too, I think, for

people to help a French-speaking family." Volunteers showed up in

droves. "Within two weeks we were bombarded with tutors," says Young,

who has no trace of an accent, although she is still fluent in French

and in Dutch. "We learned from the best," she says, "from teachers,

from professors’ wives."

The outpouring of help impressed Young with the importance of

connections – and of service.

Young is the mother of three boys, and is in the process of working on

her own children’s camp schedules. Her oldest will be a counselor at

the YMCA this summer, and her youngest is only three, so the focus is

on her middle child, a sixth grader at Chapin. "He’s considering

sports ambassador camp," she says, "but I think he’s a little young."

The campers, she explains, travel all over – this year’s trip is to

Australia. While she is not sure of how to schedule his summer, she is

aware of the need to finalize plans. "Now is the time to make camp

decisions," she says.

Wherever he attends camp, Young’s son will have plenty to write about

in next fall’s "What I Did Last Summer" essay, and so will the campers

for whom she is now designing a camp experience. Come September, she

says, her campers will be able to pipe up and declare, "Yeah, I did

something too!"

– Kathleen McGinn Spring

For more information, visit www.princeton.edu/~house or call

609-258-6136.


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