Palo Alto students went back to school Tuesday, but at week's end the campus of JLS Middle School still resembled a summer camp.
Kids in matching T-shirts and sports bags bonded over scavenger hunts, egg-drop and "swamp-crossing" competitions.
They went swimming in the school pool -- even sorted garbage together.
It was the school's fifth annual Panther Camp, a carefully crafted three-day exercise that enlists the oldest students -- eighth-graders -- to welcome the youngest and initiate them into "the JLS way."
"Everything is very intentional," explained the school's assistant principal Pier Angeli La Place as she strolled the campus, where teams of students were immersed in dropping eggs from a ladder, playing a Jeopardy-style game involving the school dress code or watching videos about bullying and "real friends."
La Place taught at JLS for two decades and, year after year, noticed the same troubling dynamic: Timid and confused sixth-graders would come into the school, fearing -- even expecting -- that older students would not treat them kindly.
She and some colleagues had the idea of breaking the cycle by recruiting the older kids to befriend and mentor the new ones.
Older students must apply to become camp counselors -- and about a third of the eighth-grade class is selected.
"There's an application process where they're asked to write about leadership, responsibility and welcoming new students," La Place said.
"We give them scenarios, and they have to say what they would do. And we get input from their teachers."
Those selected get to wear navy T-shirts with "Camp Counselor" on the back. Sixth-grade campers wear royal blue shirts. Every JLS teacher or other staff member wears a pale blue shirt.
Everyone is issued a JLS sports bag with an array of goodies, including Panther Camp pencils and rubber bracelets highlighting the school's "five C's" -- compassionate, connected, complimentary, courteous and community-minded.
Groups of a dozen sixth-graders work with a team of four or five eighth-grade counselors.
Wearing camp T-shirts, La Place and JLS Principal Sharon Ofek were making the rounds Wednesday morning.
A scavenger-hunt team approached La Place, looking for an answer to the question: "How should (JLS students) be to each other?"
La Place directed them to a sign hanging over her office door -- "We should be excellent to each other" -- and asked students for ideas on what it means.
"Respectful," "honest," "the best you can be," came replies from the group.
In the library, life-sized color images of JLS faculty members -- drawn by eighth-graders -- lined the wall for a teacher-introduction exercise.
Sixth-grade teacher Elizabeth Walton offered clues about each teacher -- "This teacher has a mother from England and likes to eat French fries with hot fudge sauce" -- and students huddled in their groups to come up with an answer.
In "green team" and technology sessions later in the day, sixth-graders practiced sorting waste into recyclables, compost and trash, got their passwords and tested the school laptops.
A character-education session focused on stress-relieving tips for the busy middle school student, related to breathing exercises, diet, exercise, sleep, service and asking for help.
It also encouraged students to take "mini-breaks" every now and then.
"You will play and work hard, so you'll also need a break," the kids were told, and then asked to write about what they would do.
"Some people do a hobby, some read, some write, others go for a walk in the park. At JLS we have clubs and a library with over 20,000 books. Give yourself a mini-vacation once in awhile!"