Camp Compass, where learning is fun
The yellow buses pull up to the southeast side elementary school and children pour out, laughing and running and twirling as they head into the building for another day of school. In the middle of July.
The enrollment has tripled, the programs have been expanded, and a new partnership with Springfield School District 186 means that Camp Compass is a larger summer education force than ever. But bigger doesn’t always mean better if your clients aren’t happy.
So, how do Camp Compass attendees feel about this year’s version of summer school in Springfield?
“It’s the best camp that you could ever be in,” said 11-year-old Nate Capler, who also attended Camp Compass last year. “You do good things, you learn things, you go on experiences you’ve never done before as a kid, and you have a great time here.”
Camp Compass is a free summer learning retention and enrichment program for low-income, at-risk elementary students in Springfield School District 186, and this year it has also taken the place of the district’s traditional summer school. The camp began June 17 and runs through July 26 at Feitshans Elementary School. It operates five days per week from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and features academics in the morning and field trips, experiences and just plain fun in the afternoon.
“Our teacher helps us in the morning, then in the afternoon our counselors have us and those are the people we have fun with,” said 10-year-old camper Jamontey Neal. “It’s fun when you come here. You’ll love to learn more. It seems like every day we come to Compass the teachers are better.”
Ten-year-old Devon Kline is also an enthusiastic repeat camper.
“The teachers are very nice and I get smarter and get a lot of compliments,” Kline said. “I practice my math and remember things, we go on field trips, and whenever we go swimming, that’s what I like the most.
“If you go there it will really help you improve in school,” Kline said.
Camp Compass had operated for the last six years at Ridgely Elementary and served approximately 100 students per summer. The District 186 summer school program, which had been in operation for 12 years, was made possible by federal Title One funds targeting districts with a high percentage of low-income students. The two summer programs merged into one this year under Camp Compass, where 360 students are now enrolled, with an average daily attendance of 260.
The campers move everywhere in groups, with teachers or counselors leading the way, whether it’s for a morning restroom break or to make tie-dye t-shirts of their own design. Four groups of 20 students making tie-dye creations at the same time can be a cacophonous riot of creative color.
Molly Berendt, founder and executive director of Compass for Kids, said Camp Compass may be three times as large this year, but it remains an enjoyable and beneficial experience for students.
“The focus of Camp Compass is to prevent summer learning loss, which is something all kids experience, but it is particularly detrimental for low-income students because they are losing two to three months of skills from the previous school year,” Berendt said. “But Camp Compass is something the kids look forward to. We don’t think kids would really want to come if it was just summer school, because that feels more punitive, like, ‘Oh you’re behind so you have to come to summer school.’”
Berendt said the “fun” part of camp also has an important purpose.
“We are addressing the opportunity gap and that’s why we have all of the enrichment activities like field trips and swimming,” Berendt said. “Some of our kids don’t get regular childhood experiences, so we are providing them with that background knowledge that helps them in school, but also giving them a regular summer so they can better relate to their peers.”
Eleven-year-old repeat camper Evan Brinkley is relating to many more of his peers, thanks to Camp Compass.
“I wanted to meet more people, more kids and stuff, and when I came here last year I met tons of kids, 40 kids probably,” Brinkley said. “I’ve met more than that this year.
“It’s fun and amazing. Everything that you can do, you can do it here,” Brinkley said. “We do school stuff, yeah, but we take a break to clear our minds.”
District 186 has provided $500,000 in Title One funds for the camp, allows the use of Feitshans School and provides the technology needed by teachers and students. Compass for Kids, the organization that operates Camp Compass, is privately funded, with the largest amount coming from United Way of Central Illinois, supplemented by donations from local businesses, individuals, foundations and service clubs.
The school district’s funds help pay for school buses for transportation, materials and resources, breakfast and lunch for the campers, and certified teachers for the camp classrooms. Those teachers have more flexibility than they would during the regular school year, according to Cindy Thayer, director of Camp Compass.
“Our literacy coaches looked at all of the data coming in from the most recent tests that the students took at their schools and they started grouping them based purely on their reading level,” said Thayer, who is also the assistant director of Compass for Kids. “So all students in each classroom are reading at the same level. Our reading experts said that the kids would actually like it because they will not feel like they are behind. For once, they are going to be in a room with their peers that are reading at the same level.
“Last year we had kids that went from reading at a third-grade level to reading at a fifth-grade level,” Thayer said. “Some kids who were not ready for middle school last year, just from coming to Camp Compass became ready for middle school.”
Ten-year-old Zamariyae Heard has responded enthusiastically to the camp’s method of reading instruction.
“I really like the morning time when we get to read because reading is my favorite subject. I like to read drama books and scary books too,” Heard said. “We also have these journals and my teacher says we can express ourselves with the journals.”
This is Lori Moore’s first year working for Camp Compass, but the literacy coach has 26 years of experience with District 186 schools.
“It is set up to help motivate the kids to want to come to school and to read,” Moore said. “Sometimes students who are reading way below grade level during the regular school year see what many of their peers are doing and they feel bad about themselves, and then they don’t want to even try. I love what we are doing for kids and I love the people I am working with.
“Even years down the road when I am not teaching any more, once I retire, I will definitely want to come back as a volunteer and help with this program,” Moore said.
A woman from the Henson Robinson Zoo introduces an auditorium full of campers to an opossum. The animal stays in its seat, just like the campers, and the quiet marsupial sniffs the air while the young humans fill that air with excited chatter.
Terrance Jordan is the principal at Black Hawk Elementary in Springfield during the regular school year and is in his second year as Camp Compass principal.
“As a principal, when you are dealing with this population of students, sometimes when kids leave school, they may not read until they get back to school, so they always come back further behind than they were when they left,” Jordan said. “Camp Compass is bridging that gap and I see a big difference in the kids that it serves.”
Jordan also appreciates the Camp Compass out-of-classroom afternoon experiences.
“In order for kids to have dreams, I feel they must have experiences and sometimes it is up to the adults to provide those experiences,” Jordan said. “It makes me feel good to see our most needy kids get the same experiences as our middle- and upper-class kids get.”
Seven-year-old camper Izzy Rovy has had some experiences this summer.
“We do activities and we go on field trips to the Kidzeum and to Skyzone,” Rovy said. “You can do anything you want at Camp Compass.”
The parents of Camp Compass kids appreciate the summer program’s combination of learning and experiences.
“Camp Compass benefited us because they do a lot with my children. My kids come home happy every day, they are excited to come the next day,” said Kendra Reyes, who has three children enrolled in the camp. “They are getting educated while having fun. It helps my children to be able to move on to the next year.”
Kebrina Frakes’ six-year-old son is in his first year at Camp Compass.
“It keeps him in the routine of going to school rather than sitting at home and being on the internet,” Frakes said. “He really likes it and looks forward to coming every day. He likes the extra activities like swimming. It gives him a chance to meet different people. It’s a blessing, I’ll sign him up again next year.”
The counselors are clearly the most popular “kids” at camp. They can relate to the campers because most are young themselves. During a tie-dye activity outdoors on a hot, humid day, counselors and kids take turns wringing out their wet creations onto each other’s heads. They are now equals – all have wet scalps.
Layah McGhee is a volunteer Camp Compass counselor, but the 14-year-old was a camper herself several years ago.
“I wanted to help kids the way that they helped me,” McGhee said. “You could tell that everybody here loved you and cared about you and what you could do in life.
“I am so happy that I’m able to help kids that are younger than me, and have them grow up and possibly come back as volunteers,” McGhee said. “I would love to be a teacher and have that same feeling every day. It’s the most amazing feeling to have a kid smile.”
Eleven-year-old Mi’Honnasti Alexander has already acquired the volunteer spirit from her time at Camp Compass.
“I like to help out people, especially the little kids,” Alexander said. “Camp Compass helps you with your attitudes, to take stress off your body and off your mind, and it also helps you forget about everything bad that has been happening. If you have a bad day the teachers can fix it.”
Springfield School District 186 is pleased with this year’s new, combined summer learning program. The six-week Camp Compass schedule is longer than the district’s previous 15-day offering, and the afternoon enrichment programs and field trips are something the district couldn’t offer under their old Title One program.
District 186 Director of Teaching and Learning Shelia Boozer is a frequent visitor to Camp Compass.
“To have that many students there excited about learning, and to have so many caring adults from the school system and the community working with our kids, is wonderful,” Boozer said. “It is helping to expose kids to some things that otherwise they might not have had the opportunity to do, while making sure they are better prepared for the regular school year.”