Sixth-graders welcomed at Panther Camp

Popular middle-school program enlists older students to initiate new ones

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!"

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Posted by Carrie Manley
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Great story--thank you!
"Panther Camp" at JLS really is something special. Lots of times, kids in 5th grade hear a lot about "getting ready for middle school." As a result, some students might understandably start to wonder, 'Just what am I getting myself into?!' Panther Camp wisely sets a remarkably positive tone from Day One. Students learn best when they are relaxed and feel safe, and Panther Camp immediately lets a student know that they are welcomed and valued members of the school community. Having 8th grade counselors is a stroke of genius, instantly making the older students positive role-models. (And 8th graders are less likely to tease or ignore a new 6th grader, if they've already had the responsibility and opportunity to welcome them to the school!) Several years ago, when my son entered 6th grade at JLS, I volunteered to help one day at Panther Camp. Watching the new six graders learn so many new things(how to use a locker, how to navigate the campus,etc.) gave me a new appreciation of the 'bigger world' of middle school. Best of all, watching the dedicated staff and counselors make all that learning fun made me realize that I was leaving my son in good hands. When my son went into 8th grade, he was thrilled to be part of the Panther Camp team, grateful for the chance to help the younger kids... just as others had done for him. Now that's a lesson for life! Thanks to the Weekly's Chris Kenrick for this fine story, and most of all, thanks to the caring, thoughtful educators at JLS for creating this outstanding introduction to middle school. Go Panther Camp!

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Why is this camp only at JLS - it sound terrific and would be a great addition to all our middle schools!

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Posted by JLS Teacher
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 27, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Great article! I am proud to work at a middle school that offers such a comprehensive welcome to our sixth graders (and valuable leadership experience for our eighth graders).

Kudos go to our Panther Camp leadership team for putting countless hours into the planning and logistics, the JLS administration and entire staff for their support, and our fabulous PTA for their financial commitment and volunteer hours. The success of Panther Camp is truly a schoolwide effort!

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Posted by Pier Angeli La Place
a resident of another community
on Aug 29, 2011 at 8:03 am

Thank you to Chris Kenrick and the Weekly for such a positive article about Panther Camp. We are committed to facilitating a smooth transition from elementary for our students. It's important to note that it takes a team of staff, parents, and students to provide our 6th graders with a comprehensive orientation to middle school. Everyone at JLS contributes to Panther Camp in some way and is impacted by it. In addition to a warm welcome for our students, new parents are able to form connections, 8th graders step into leadership roles, and our entire community has an opportunity to embrace our school goals and values. Katie Schramm, Leonel Argumedo, and Alex Ikeda Salzmann, teachers on the PC Team, deserve a big thanks as well.

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Posted by Well done, JLS
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 29, 2011 at 10:58 am

My daughter, now a Gunn freshman, was a Panther Camp Counselor last year when her sister was an entering 6th grader. It is a fabulous program. The kids take ownership of supporting each other from day one, and that sets a positive tone for the rest of the year. Parents who volunteer get a great community building experience, too.

Many thanks to all of the JLS community leaders: staff, parents, students who make JLS such a welcoming community and Panther Camp such a fun, bonding experience for our entering 6th graders. Yahoo, you! This is a great way to start a successful middle school experience.

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Posted by Ginger
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 29, 2011 at 11:01 am

I agree with Palo Alto Mom .... why isn't Jordan doing a Jaguar Camp? They need this as much, if not more, than JLS. When my son was a 6th grader at Jordan he was shy and introverted and no one paid any attention to him. He was a good student and didn't rock the boat, got good grades and followed the rules. But he truly got lost in the shuffle of a 900-student middle school. He didn't arrive at Jordan with friends from elementary school (as most students did) b/c we had just moved to the area. I can't tell you how many tearful days there were there - it was pretty awful in 6th grade. It was finally through various sports teams that my son became more well-known and liked by his peers. Back then there wasn't even a 6th grade counselor to talk to!!

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Posted by wondering
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm

does terman have anything similar? this program sounds excellent.

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Posted by terman parent
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 29, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Terman has Tiger Camp which runs for 6 days. It's different than Panther Camp; would be nice to see the comparisons.

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Posted by Carrie Manley
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm

It's my understanding that the team at JLS developed Panther Camp as a way to help all students with the transition to middle school. Over the years, the JLS staff has worked hard to continue to refine and improve the program, working in partnership with volunteer parents and the 8th grade Panther Camp counselors. It's a great, collaborative model, that really encourages a positive, connected community of students, teachers and parents. It does take time and effort to get something like this going. I've heard Terman has developed its own program, Tiger Camp... and I don't know about Jordan. I think it's important to recognize that many teachers and administrators at all our PAUSD school sites are constantly trying out new innovations to help students in many ways. Developing a program like this one does take time and effort; every school team is, no doubt, continually evaluating what it can take on, and do well, at any given time. That said, I've seen a number of very happy 6th grade Campers this past week--who think now middle school is the greatest. And it sure beats one alternative: having a 6th grader come home from Day One of middle school, with little to say, except "I have homework." Thanks again for Panther (and Tiger, oh my!)

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Jordan does do a short camp - one morning I believe of "team building"events run by some of the 8th graders and the 6th grade teachers. And if I remember correctly, my daughter had more homework in 6th grade than any other time in middle school.

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Posted by anon
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Sounds like a neat idea. Question - why don't they let any student be a counselor? Seems like the teachers might only pick the "popular" kids or ones they like. Students can pair up 1:1 doesn't have to be 1 counselor to multiple 6th graders. Can be like a "buddy". I think a rejected kid would be affected.

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Posted by Natasha
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

In answer to anon:

I suspect that, actually, most of the kids who apply are picked. Not all kids apply. Not all kids are necessarily suited to be good counselors. Students who are chosen have to want to be counselors, have to articulate why they would be good counselors, and have to demonstrate that they have the skills to do so. This application takes time, thought and effort, and they take the responsibility seriously. And most definitely the teachers are quite thoughtful about the eighth graders they pick.

In fact, I would say that the way the school goes about Panther Camp is entirely typical of the thoughtful way the whole school is run from the top down. As the parent of two former Panther Campers and one Panther Camp counselor, I can say that this experience sets the tone for the rest of a sixth-grader's time at JLS. My own 8th grader wanted to be a counselor because she remembered how great it felt to have an older student who noticed and greeted her in the halls all year, asked how she was doing, and generally gave the impression of caring about her. She wanted to do the same for the incoming sixth graders. JLS is a wonderful school where people do a lot of thinking about the good of the entire community and the kind of place they would like to be. I give a lot of credit to Sharon Ofek for her leadership in this, but the administration and staff also are warm and caring. It makes a difference.

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Posted by Don Cox
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Wow. I have a smile on face. I am so proud that Panther Camp has become a tradition at JLS. When I had the honor of being JLS principal, I identified the need for a "smoother" transition for our kids going from from 5th grade to middle school. It would be an understatement to say I ran into some "opposition" with this idea. However, I had the help and support of many talented teachers, parents, students and staff in order to develop and implement what
we called Panther Camp. It is now 5 years later and it's still going strong with the support of the current JLS Leadership Team. It's all about the kids. One can never go wrong when decisions are made based on what is best for them.

Best to all for another successful school year.

Don Cox

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Posted by b.e.b.
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2011 at 11:14 am

This is such a great idea! I wish there had been something like this back when I was in middle school.

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Posted by Portola Valley Resident
a resident of Portola Valley
on Nov 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I was surprised to see Don Cox make an appearance in the comment section after the mess he left at Corte Madera last year. He seemed to take his responsibility as a principal as a part-time job, adding weeks onto each school break for extended vacations and seemingly missing most every Friday as well. He was the worst principal I have experienced and many teachers tactfully seemed to share this opinion. Meanwhile, he kept sharing his "expertise" and sense of self-accomplishment just as he does in his comment in this forum.

Concerned Parent

Like this comment
Posted by Tuba
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 1, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I would like to join the camp as volunteer parent. Does anyone know where can i have this information ? is it too late to be?

Thanks for all reply.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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