A smooth transition

New UPWARD program helps incoming Camas sixth-graders make move

Incoming sixth-grade Skyridge students Arielle Greenstone (left) and Sarah Heigl (right) share about the rockets they created during camp.

Incoming sixth grade students work with an UPWARD middle school mentor on worksheets that help students develop into the type of person they want to be during the week long summer camp. The camp was created by Heather Fresh, a parent of three Camas students, and expanded to Skyridge Middle School in its second year, after only being held at Liberty Middle school. (Contributed photo courtesy of Ashley Gerst)

UPWARD, a week-long summer camp that exposes incoming sixth-grade students to their new middle school environment has expanded to Skyridge Middle School in Camas.

The 2-year-old program, which doubled its number of students served during its second year, now covers sixth-graders in both Liberty and Skyridge middle schools. The program has 207 Camas students enrolled this year, compared to 83 last summer, when it was housed only at Liberty Middle.

Heather Fresh, a mother of three Camas School District students, created the nonprofit after her family moved to Camas from Saratoga Springs, New York, in December 2014.

“It’s a pivotal point in their life,” Fresh said of entering sixth grade. “They are leaving elementary school, where teachers are still walking them to the buses, walking them to the cafeteria and they’re in a single-file line. They don’t have a lot of independence yet, and then all of a sudden we open the doors of middle school.”

The UPWARD program is modeled after an “All-Stars” program Fresh’s eldest son, Wilson, experienced in New York and recommended for his younger siblings, Wade and Charlotte.

The students spend the week in UPWARD narrowing down who they want to be in the future, listening to guest speakers and participating in activities that allow them to build relationships with other students, teachers and administrators in the building.

The curriculum focuses on reducing risky behavior such as the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, according to UPWARD. The camp also is a starting point for more difficult conversations related to reputations, consequences and the development of good habits.

“We try to make it a real fun summer camp, but put all that curriculum in there, as well as tour the building,” Fresh said.

The camp features a few guest speakers each week. At Skyridge, the Camas Downtown Association director, Carrie Schulstad, and event and volunteer coordinator, Jan Carter, spoke with the students about downtown activities and volunteer opportunities for their age group.

“I really wanted the kids to know that there are ways that they can give back to serve,” Fresh said. “I wanted them to know that it’s not just (people) within this building who care about them, but that Camas cares. We try to create this culture of ‘We got ya. We’ve got your back.'”

The camp also aims to have guest speakers who can teach students different skills or share their own stories.

“We have someone who comes in and speaks about his choices,” Fresh said. “How his choices through alcoholism have caused consequences in his life … so, real life examples. They get the real stuff.”

The days consist of two 45-minute classroom sessions, during which students work on lessons to decide what characteristics they want in their future, which traits they don’t want and the habits they can develop to help them achieve that future, Fresh said.

“(They) start to think about the habits that they make, and all along they talk about friendships, citizenship and then they move on to talk about social norms and what they can do in the school and classroom to continue that,” she explained.

UPWARD students Sarah Heigl, 11, and Arielle Greenstone, 11, will both enter sixth grade at Skyridge Middle School this year.

While Greenstone said she’s “crazy excited” for sixth grade, Heigl admits the transition is a little nerve-racking because she may not be in the same class as her friends.

The activities at the UPWARD camp are helping her meet people and work through her fears and nervousness, Heigl said.

“It’s helped me know more about the school and where everything is,” she said of the transition camp. “It helps us to get more familiar with the school and the people.”

Greenstone said she’s enjoyed learning about reputations and narrowing down the reputations she wants to earn, avoid and why it matters.

“I really want to avoid being a bossy person and a know-it-all,” Greenstone said. “I really want to be known as kind and always willing to help.”

The students also said they enjoy having older student-mentors who work with them and are willing to help.

Fresh hires two teachers for both UPWARD camps, and has four to eight volunteers — all former Camas students.

Skyridge educators Lucas Valenter, a language arts teacher, and Karen Olsen, a science teacher, took part in this year’s UPWARD camp at their Camas middle school.

“It’s something that I wish I would’ve had, because kids are starting to figure out who they are or want to be,” Valenter said. “It takes some of the anxiety away, because they now know the school a little better.”

Olsen said the camp allows students to feel like “experts” on their new school, and gives them a leadership role.

“I think it’s valuable,” she said. “Not only do they get to be used to the school, but they think about who they want to be and they also get to have fun.”

Each school has two rounds of the camp, and the teachers said they have been able to meet about 90 incoming sixth-grade students through the UPWARD program.

Olsen said she likes getting to know the students in the more relaxed environment.

“You get to know them as more than just a student, but who they are,” Valenter said.

Fresh said she and her husband, Rocky, relocated to Camas because it was a community they felt they could be a part of.

“It’s not like you get lost in a city (like) Portland,” Fresh said of living in Camas. “You’re in a community where you can be a part of the community, and you can make a difference”

This year, Gresham Subaru made a donation that sponsored about 40 participants and made it possible for any interested student to attend the camp. The community support is essential to the success of the program, Fresh said.

Donations and a Camas Education Foundation mini-grant fund the UPWARD transition program.

Visit “UPWARD Camas” on Facebook to donate.