January 18, 2019

Shorter summer challenges camps

“Early-start” is finally starting.

After delaying implementation of a new, earlier school calendar last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will begin classes three weeks sooner this fall for the majority of students.

Caught in the middle are local summer camps, which are once again working to accommodate the change without compromising the quality of the camp experience. Jewish camps in the Los Angeles area are offering families stopgap deals to make overnight camp feasible for LAUSD students who will have a shorter summer vacation.

At many camps, the problem is twofold: Not only are students squeezed by the early start of school at summer’s end, but as the last academic year on the old calendar wraps up this June, those same kids might have to miss the beginning of camp, too.

“This summer, it hits us on both ends,” said Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley.

The L.A. Board of Education voted in September to move forward with the early-start plan, which members approved in 2010 but then scrapped in early 2011 due to concerns over start-up costs. The district will call school back to session on Aug. 14 and end instruction in early June in 2013, a schedule proponents say is more beneficial to students academically and places high schools in line with college calendars.

LAUSD schools on traditional calendars (not year-round) are scheduled to finish instruction on June 22. But Camp Alonim and Camp JCA Shalom both start their first overnight sessions on June 19, while Alonim’s CITs (counselors in training) are asked to arrive June 18. Camp Ramah and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps’ first sessions start on June 20.

Alonim lets campers whose school schedules conflict start camp a few days late — even CITs, who are required to be present all eight weeks. Around 10 percent of Alonim’s CITs typically arrive late because of school, Levine said.

“We’re actually looking forward to the beginning of our summer not conflicting with LAUSD” in 2013, when the new school calendar liberates kids for summer break on June 4, he added.

As for the end of summer 2012, Alonim’s third and final session ends Aug. 12, two days before L.A. public schools begin. “We haven’t heard any significant issues from our families this year and we haven’t seen an adjustment in enrollment,” Levine said. 

The transition won’t be as easy for Camp JCA Shalom. The Malibu camp plans to run a one-week mini-session Aug. 14-19, which now coincides with the first week of school.

“For those kids in LAUSD, that’s not going to be an option anymore,” JCA Shalom director Joel Charnick said. “We’re looking at the registration very closely to see if that week will even happen” if there aren’t enough sign-ups.

The last of the camp’s three full sessions, traditionally the most popular, clears the start of school by two days. But many families are still concerned that the window to prepare for class is too short. “We’ve heard from a number of parents who are saying it’s very hard and some who have requested they pull their kids out early,” Charnick said.

Still, the camp is discouraging parents from making children miss out on the fanfare and bonding that traditionally marks the last day of camp, he said: “That’s like playing four quarters of football and leaving in the last minute of the game.”

The fact that a “good chunk” of JCA Shalom campers attend LAUSD schools will necessitate talks about shifting the camp calendar for future summers, Charnick said. “If need be, our camp, and probably many others, will have to make the very tough decision of moving sessions around to accommodate that [early-start] schedule. We’re willing to do what it takes to keep our kids coming to camp. Having to miss part of camp every year because of a school change — we’re going to make sure it doesn’t come to that.”

School board members have pushed for the early-start calendar because it will give schools time to complete the first semester of classes before winter break, meaning students won’t have to spend their vacations studying for finals. Superintendent John Deasy had urged delaying implementation of the calendar last fall due to a one-time extra cost of $2 million to $4 million. But board members, including Tamar Galatzan and board president Monica Garcia, said the time to enact the change was now — 18 LAUSD schools already on the new schedule, many in the San Fernando Valley, already have shown academic improvement, they said. 

At Camp Ramah in Ojai, the second of the camp’s two four-week sessions ends Aug. 15, the day after LAUSD’s school year starts.

“Any change of timing in any school district will put pressure on families to enroll in a specific session of Ramah,” said Rabbi Joe Menashe, the camp’s director. “But we have not felt a drastic switch this year because it’s only a short overlap at the end of the summer.”

The camp will let families pick up their kids on or after Aug. 12, after campers spend their last Shabbat together. But Menashe is suggesting that parents bring their children back for the end-of-camp banquet the night of Aug. 15. “That way they can still be part of this nice end-of-summer experience,” he said.

Charnick, who was a JCA Shalom camper himself in the 1980s and ’90s, still recalls “every minute” of his last weekend of camp as a CIT — the final Havdalah as a group, hugs between friends, tearful goodbyes.

“Those last few days are just critical to kids’ experience,” he said.