'Panther Camp' will improve student experience, officials hope | September 7, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 7, 2007

'Panther Camp' will improve student experience, officials hope

Three-day event at JLS also previews character-building program

by Arden Pennell

She was anxious when arriving at her new middle school this week, but by the end of the day sixth grader Kavya Ramakirshan's worries had cleared.

"Even though my sister was in school here, I still was a little bit nervous, but now I'm not because I know a lot of people," she said.

Fellow newcomer Ghenki Okumoto's sense of intimidation in front of the large, unfamiliar campus had likewise dissolved.

"When I came here I always thought it was a maze, but now I'm perfectly fine with it,î he said.

The two students were participating in Panther Camp, a new three-day initiative at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School designed to ease the transition between elementary and middle school. The camp was conceptualized by Principal Don Cox. It was created with help from staff, parents and 75 eighth-grade counselors.

Previous orientation for sixth graders was insufficient, Cox said.

"Typically, we spent two hours on a hot August afternoon talking at kids," Cox said. "I had this idea we'd spend three days talking with them."

This year's longer, more interactive schedule will engage kids in learning how to deal with the new challenges ahead, he said.

"In middle school, all of a sudden kids are changing classes, making new friends, breaking it off with older friends, and they have multiple teachers and multiple responsibilities," Cox said. "We want to be proactive. We want to model for kids those behaviors that are responsible, appropriate and kind."

The camp's 310 sixth graders were divided into groups and spent three days in activities dealing with the themes of character, team-building and getting to know the school.

All of Palo Alto's middle schools offer a spring tour to fifth graders. Terman opened a day early for registration, while Jordan had a "New Student Social," where students chatted and got another tour, said Vice Principal Christina Regalia.

But Panther Camp ran from Tuesday through Thursday, making it the longest and perhaps most thorough program.

The camp's activities were designed to meet a variety of needs. To familiarize students with their new environment, a scavenger hunt led pairs to the attendance office and to meet guidance counselors. To foster teamwork, students played games together, such as building a straw net to catch eggs. Teachers taught administrative rules by having students answer Jeopardy-style questions instead of reading from a booklet.

Students watched an hour-long video called "Let's Get Real," about how to deal with bullying and name-calling produced by an Academy Award-winning director.

"I'm the one who teases you," a lanky adolescent confesses to the camera, while others describe what it feels like to be insulted or taunted.

Nancy Brown, an associate at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's Research Institute, praised the Panther Camp concept upon hearing a description, although she said that addressing social exclusion requires even more sophisticated teaching.

Sometimes "perfectly well-trained, socially appropriate kids," nonetheless simply ignore other children who are "quiet or weird," Brown said.

"We need to say, 'Not only are you responsible to be kind to kids. ... But there's a level of social responsibility to those in your circle,'" she said. "You need to be conscious of those around you."

Instilling a larger understanding of social responsibility is a goal of the middle school's new Character Education Program, of which the video is a part, Cox said.

The broader "Character Ed" program, in which all students will participate this year, will discuss character traits such as honesty and perseverance, Cox said. Some students will even make videos about personality attributes for broadcast on the school's internal television system.

Pier Angeli La Place, one of three directors who created activities and drafted materials for Panther Camp, said the orientation's success will be measured by evaluations from students, parents and staff.

She said she expected the camp to benefit both newcomers and eighth-grade volunteers,

who led many activities in the presence of teacher supervisors.

"It gives eighth graders an opportunity for positive leadership," she said. "They learn it's OK to make a connection with sixth graders."

Eighth grader and counselor Isabel Obrien thought the camp improved unity among students.

"Now they know some of the eighth graders, and they probably don't think it's as scary. They see we're the same as them, only older," she said.

She also praised the program's well-organized informational games.

"I'm learning things I didn't know. When we were in sixth grade, it was all spread out," she said.

In the optional orientation session used in the past, which took place days before school started, "less than a third of kids showed up, and there would be maybe three sixth-grade teachers," said Ryan Fletcher, who teaches math and science, and organized the activities with instructors La Place and Katie Schramm. He said the current, mandatory program is an improvement.

However, Mary Fries, a sixth-grade teacher who created the daylong Pirate Camp in place at Sunnyvale's Peterson Middle School, said she runs the event a week before school starts because "it's not disruptive to the normal proceedings."

Yet she also said that finding enough manpower to manage the week-early orientation is a challenge.

JLS' during-school program meant missing class for eighth-grade volunteers. Cox said tutoring was provided to help them catch up with lessons.

More than 50 parents also helped run the event, he added.

Reporter Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at apennell@paweekly.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Kavya Ramakirshan
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Dec 13, 2007 at 6:08 pm

Well written!!!!! I was first in this article!!!!!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Kavya Ramakirshan
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jan 2, 2008 at 11:36 am

This is fun.............everyone who comes here, post something!!!
Especially Divya Ramakirshan