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
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
"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
"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
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
– Kathleen McGinn Spring
For more information, visit www.princeton.edu/~house or call
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.