Bermudez: Uncommon Schools’ Summer Camp Shines a Spotlight on ‘The Kid in the Second Row’

(Photo: Uncommon Schools)

Ariana Guerrero’s favorite moment of camp happened before it began.

Ariana, an eighth-grader from Boston, waited for a bus carrying kids from Brooklyn, including three close friends she made last summer.

“When we got on the bus, I couldn’t even speak,” she says, hands and arms waving. “Everybody was like, ‘Arianaaaaaa!’ ”

Ariana is usually not the center of attention. But at Camp Uncommon, she is a star.

Camp Uncommon is a summer camp run by Uncommon Schools, a public charter school network that serves more than 18,000 students across 52 schools in New York (Brooklyn, Rochester, and Troy), New Jersey (Camden and Newark), and Massachusetts (Boston). Every summer, 160 rising fifth- through ninth-grade Uncommon students attend the camp at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine.

For two weeks at camp, kids like Ariana get to be their funniest, boldest, and truest selves in a safe space away from everything they know. Some have never left their neighborhoods. Maine, for them, might as well be the moon.

Students at Uncommon Schools, predominantly children of color from low-income communities, attend one of the nation’s highest-performing public charter networks. But some graduates still report feeling isolated at college, like many students from similar backgrounds. So the network decided to do more to teach nonacademic skills — the ability to forge new friendships, adjust to unfamiliar surroundings, and develop self-confidence — to improve the transition to college.

There was power, Uncommon’s educators realized, in teaching those skills outside of school.

Josh Phillips, the camp’s founder and Uncommon’s chief of innovation officer and school operations, says the camp pries open the shells of kids who shy away from the spotlight.

“We’re not looking for the A+ kid,” says Phillips. “It’s not the student who’s off-the-charts great, it’s not the student who is not doing well in school, but the student who’s a B average, maybe a B+ average, who doesn’t get chosen a lot.”

Mike Callahan, director of Camp Uncommon and a former social worker at North Star Academy West Side Park Elementary and Middle Schools in Newark, agrees.

“I always describe him as the kid in the second row,” Callahan says. “If he raises his hand, the answer will be right, but if you don’t call on him, he won’t raise his hand.”

Phillips says the camp’s goal is to help students learn to be secure in who they are. Camp Uncommon, he says, increases students’ self-confidence, independence, and curiosity — all essential to college success.

“Our hope is that it spills over into life,” he says. “We want them to feel like being themselves is good enough.”

At Camp Uncommon, kids can’t retreat to the second row.

They dive into theater, sports, African dance, and photography. Groups are small, so everyone participates. Campers share dorm rooms with students they don’t know. And there are no cell phones.

Counselors are mostly black or Latino and come from similar backgrounds as the campers. Many work at or graduated from Uncommon Schools. Some went far from home to attend colleges like Colby, providing inspiration for the campers.

One alum, Tania Christopher, is now a performing arts teacher at Camden Prep Mt. Ephraim. She leads six students in an improv class: Two performers are in a car, picking up a steady stream of hitchhikers. There is a raging, cackling narcissist, a traveler with poor eyesight who causes the driver to veer off the road, and an elderly lady with a textbook Long Island accent, waving her arms in exasperation and yelling, “Cawm awn!”

“Summer camp makes it safe for kids’ quirks to come out,” Callahan says, “and gives them space to explore their interests.”

Every afternoon, campers gather in circles to explore the “value of the day.” Felix Toxey, dean of students at Camden Prep Middle School, kicks off a discussion on gratitude by thanking one boy for sharing a touching compliment.

Another camper says, “I can show gratitude by being thankful for what my family and other people do for me and how I feel about them.”

Counselor Carlos Jolley, an incoming freshman at Amherst College who recently graduated from Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School in Brooklyn, suggests that his campers go deeper. “It’s easy, especially for family and close friends, to just say thank you and have that be it,” he says. “To show gratitude, you can explain to them why it means so much and how what they’re doing affects you.”

Each comment draws snaps of approval.

“Let’s start today showing gratitude to people in the moment because you never know,” Toxey urges the group. “Let’s agree to that.”

The group huddles, hands piled, yelling out in joy.

That joy extends to the teachers, too, though the hours are long and the schedule hectic.

Alex Toole, a seventh-grade teacher at Uncommon’s Roxbury Prep Dorchester Campus, says camp gives him a break from his no-nonsense reputation at school. He is dubbed Adventure Alex because of his acumen as an outdoorsman. Saying only his first name draws blank stares from everyone.

At the evening activity, “Counselor Idol,” Toole cuts loose at a piano, crooning Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” as campers dance and sing along.

His openness has not gone unnoticed.

“One of my students said something she was grateful for was my not being a teacher here,” Toole says. “She said, ‘It’s cool to see you in a different light.’ ”

Brittney Moore, a third-grade teacher at Troy Prep Elementary School, says camp gives her an intimate look into her campers’ lives and influences her teaching.

“It made me look at the whole child a lot more,” she says. “There’s so much stuff that our kids bring with them every day that I didn’t process until I lived with them at camp.”

For students who cannot attend camp, Ebony Joseph, a fourth-grade teacher at West Side Park Elementary, replicates the experience however she can.

Camp, she says, is a boon for her teaching.

“I think it’s helping the educators who work at Uncommon,” Joseph says. “A lot of us take this time to reflect.”

Camp Uncommon has quickly become a beloved institution. Phillips and Callahan are investigating properties to buy or lease in Maine, upstate New York, the Berkshires, or the Poconos to send more kids like Ariana camping.

Ariana has flourished thanks to her counselors and fellow campers.

She won a certificate for friendship, drawing gleeful cries from her group when her name was announced.

What Ariana has learned from camp is that she is not only good enough, but great.

“Before, I didn’t know I was somebody a bunch of adults wanted to be with,” she says. “A lot of people I don’t even know look up to me and think I’m a really cool person.”

Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that identifies and supports the nation’s best charter schools. Charter School Growth Fund provides philanthropic support to Uncommon Schools.

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