Middle school: The best years

Camp helps incoming sixth-graders alleviate fears about lockers and more

Students design tye-dye shirts during camp. Activities were designed to help them feel pride in themselves and their school.

The thought of opening a locker on the first day of school can strike fear into the heart of even the bravest 11-year-old, who has likely seen at least one television show or movie depicting middle school as a scary place where sixth-graders get bullied and stuffed into lockers.

But a new camp at Liberty Middle School, UPWARD, is trying to help alleviate those types of concerns for its incoming students. Along with how to access their totally not-scary lockers, they learn how to navigate other situations likely to cause some anxiety, such as finding the bathrooms, getting to class and figuring out where and when to go for lunch.

Educators have partnered with area parents to offer the opportunity to attend an orientation summer camp. The week-long event, hosted by staff, middle schoolers, and high school students, gives tweens the chance to get to know the school, and meet their teachers and classmates. Camp organizers hope the program will lead to a better start of the school year for incoming sixth-graders and give them some tools to help other struggling students.

“We know that for some kids (and more than a couple parents) coming to middle school from elementary school can be a stressful time, and we want to reduce that stress as much as possible,” explained Gary Moller, the principal at Liberty Middle.

Kendall Hood and Savannah Fennell were among the more than 40 campers.

Both girls decided to attend the camp after hearing information about it at their elementary schools in the spring.

“I thought it sounded interesting and wanted to see what middle school was all about,” Hood said.

Added Fennell: “I wanted to learn how to open my locker. We only have three minutes to do it and then get to class.”

Both girls felt the camp was beneficial in getting them familiar with the school and the dreaded lockers.

“When other students struggle, we will be able to help them,” Hood said.

Camas resident and parent Heather Fresh applied for a grant from the Camas Educational Foundation in order to help fund the camp, which is modeled after a program offered in Fresh’s former home, Saratoga, New York.

“It’s a huge transition,” Fresh said. “You don’t walk single-file to lunch or the bus. You’re not in one classroom anymore.

She continued, “Coming to this camp can help alleviate the little stresses, such as how to open lockers and get to class on time. There are literally kids who are in tears over this every year. They also have an opportunity to meet kids from other schools and get a tour of the school.”

After learning the basics, students participate in a scavenger hunt to test their recall of the school tour.

“I want all of them to feel like this is home,” Fresh said.

Every night during the week-long camp, students have questions to reflect on with their parents or another trusted adult. These include topics such as choices, consequences and earning versus getting a reputation.

“It starts conversations with parents that sometimes you don’t really have,” Fresh explained of the nightly questions. “In middle school, it is so much about what other people think of you. This helps kids decide how they see their future.”

Sixth-grade teacher David Volke was one of the camp instructors and said he thought the camp would help alleviate first-day-of-school stress.

“There is so much information coming at these kids, so we are taking the time now to talk to them about forming good habits and what kind of future do they want, and how to get there,” he said. “They meet other students and get used to the school in a low-pressure setting.”