This summer, the Hamilton Township School District in Mercer County held a summer camp program for the community, offering 42 different camps to 587 campers.
The program had its roots five years earlier, when the district decided that a summer camp program would be a way to serve our K-12 students with an engaging summer camp experience.
The camps could provide summer enrichment and give students a chance to make friends, explore new things and grow in a safe environment. The camp would also provide summer employment for our HTSD teachers.
Hamilton Township schools are home to a diverse population of 12,000 students, 24 school buildings and 1,600 teaching and support staff members.
The planning began in 2018, and the first summer of camp was in 2019. We welcomed 260 campers, offering 22 different camps. We were anticipating growth and eager for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined our progress for the summer of 2020 and 2021, preventing us from offering camp either year. Summer 2022 brought growth and expansion with a total of 334 campers and 32 different camps. And in 2023, our enrollment nearly doubled, as we increased our camp offerings by about 30%.
The camp runs in one-week segments; this year, sessions ran from July 10 through August 4. Each weeklong segment offered about 8-10 different programs geared to elementary (K-2), upper elementary (grades 3-5), middle (grades 6-8) and high school (grades 9-12) students.
But camp preparation begins long before summer. It starts in August, right after camp for the previous school year ends
Each year at the end of camp, we invite our camp families and staff to complete a survey. These survey responses have provided insight into what types of programs families want and how we can improve the camps. We evaluate the surveys, discuss our weekly camp offerings and begin planning. A Google Form is created and shared with the entire HTSD staff encouraging them to submit a camp proposal(s) for the following summer. With a deadline of mid-November, all proposals are read, approved and added to our camp brochure. The camp brochure is a comprehensive four-page brochure, approved by our board of education in January for a Feb. 1 open registration date. In addition to the camp brochure, all camps are added to our third-party online registration system, which is linked to our Summer Camp webpage. HTSD has worked with a third-party organization to provide online registrations. For families who do not wish to use online payment, we offer a money order option via a paper registration form. All forms on our website are offered in English and Spanish.
A camp coordinator is hired to order supplies, collect lesson plans and manage the daily operations onsite during the four weeks of camp. HTSD teachers are paid their hourly contracted rate to teach camp. Every camp instructor is BOE-approved as well as our junior counselors (HTSD high school students) who have volunteered their time for community service hours. HTSD uses a third-party online registration to collect required paperwork from our parents (i.e.: emergency contact, permission to take pictures, food or other allergies, camp T-shirt size, etc.).
In an effort to expand, our 2023 camps provided four weeks of kindergarten-themed camps for students who were beginning school in the fall. Feedback from previous surveys indicated we needed to address the needs of our youngest population, some of whom may not have ever been in a classroom setting before. Kindergarten Kickstart, Finger Painting, Dinosaur Dig, and R Is for Reading Camps were designed to welcome our kindergarten students and teach them the fundamentals of being in a classroom. We taught social and emotional lessons and established a relationship of trust between our youngest population and their families.
Technology is always a highlight of our camps with Drone and Aviation camps offered in 2022 and 2023. Campers are invited to learn the science of flying drones with hands-on lessons designed to encourage students to complete their training with a flight certification. Local Hamilton Township police officers visited our Drone Camp to demonstrate their drones and share the ways drones assist them.
Hands-on experiments, art and STEAM projects were also popular last summer. Our K-2 and 3-5 graders enjoyed Mad Scientist, Maritime Science: Sail to STEAM. Many of these camps were sold out as early as March. Additional weeks were added to meet the demand for these engaging camps. It was also important for us to create a series of camps allowing our students to play outside. Recess and Yard Games, Intro to Sports, Volleyball and Outdoor Play & Games allowed our campers to learn new games and enjoy competitive play.
Culinary camps are always very popular. Kidz in the Kitchen, Anyone Can Cook, and 2 Many Chefs in the Kitchen were sold out weekly. A basic understanding of kitchen tools, safety in the kitchen and nutrition is important for kids of all ages. Our families expressed a need for their children to learn independence through cooking. Sold out cooking camps presented another concern — the rising cost of food. How could we afford to purchase the necessary food items for each of our camps? Fortunately, the Princeton Area Community Foundation, a local nonprofit organization serving Mercer County, New Jersey and Bucks County, Pennsylvania provided grant opportunities. The PACF offered a Community Impact Grant and a Summer Initiatives grant, which HTSD applied for and received a total of $15,000 (2022 and 2023 grants). These grants helped to offset the cost of camp supplies, food supplies and scholarships for our families in need.
The arts are also part of HTSD’s camp offerings. We provided Summer Band Workshop, Summer Strings Orchestra, Sing Me A Story, Art in the Air, Masterpiece Artists, Acting for Middle School and Sign Language camp, with participants performing for our families and campers.
This was year two of our Gardening and Landscape camp. Our campers transformed the welcome garden in front of Crockett Middle School with a service garden honoring the soldiers who fought and lost their lives in Iraq. The garden was originally designed in 2007 by Cub Scout Joseph Stephen Commisky. Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin, retired Air Force, joined our campers as they added new military service flags to the garden.
A full list of program offerings can be found at here.
HTSD works closely with our guidance team in our elementary and middle schools to identify students who would benefit from a week of camp. These students must qualify for free and reduced lunch, have excellent attendance and behavior to receive a one-week scholarship. Thirty-five students received a camp scholarship in 2023. (Last year, half-day weeklong sessions ran $175 to $200 per week; full day camps ran $250-$275 weekly. The lower price was for early registration.)
Communication is one of the most critical components of a successful camp. Weekly emails are sent from Feb. 1 through the end of the school year to camp instructors, keeping staff updated on camp registration. Social media, local radio and cable TV, our website and district events provide an opportunity to promote summer camp. Tech Night, Art Shows, our community library, and Shop Hamilton, our local small business organization, offered the ideal platform for our camp staff to connect with our community. Providing news articles to our local press and online newsletters provided us with additional promotion throughout the school year.
Next summer, Hamilton Township will expand its camp offerings with a focus on additional technology, sports, extended gardening and horticulture, art and more. We are excited to begin discussions on hiring our rising junior and senior high school students to assist our camp instructors next year. Each of our three high schools offer a Tomorrow’s Teachers curriculum, which allows our students the ability to earn college credit for courses taken in high school. This articulation agreement enables students to continue their education at William Paterson University, Mercer County Community College and Kean University. It is our intention to further encourage our future education majors via the ability to earn hands-on experience in the classroom and in the field through summer camp. Additionally, to further serve our community, HTSD is planning a Before Camp program, offering our parents the option to drop off their students one hour prior to the start of our camp day.
In appreciation for our families choosing to spend part of their summer with HTSD, I always conclude my emails with a thank you message. We are honored that our families have chosen to learn with us during their summers.
For additional information on the HTSD Summer Camp Program, contact Laura Geltch at LGeltch@htsdnj.org.