Students in St. Mary Knights Summer Camp, Manahawkin, show off their STEM-based project: smash-proof egg cages built with straws and other common materials. Courtesy photo
Students in St. Mary Knights Summer Camp, Manahawkin, show off their STEM-based project: smash-proof egg cages built with straws and other common materials. Courtesy photo

Guarding against learning loss between spring and fall has long been important to help keep students prepared for the next grade – especially following 18 months of pandemic effects.

To that end, schools in the Diocese of Trenton have offered programs that address students’ academic needs while providing a safe and fun environment where learning feels like recreation.

Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, offered girls in grades five through nine the skills they need to prepare them for a life of leadership and service. 

The #LEADLIKEAGIRL camp, held July 26-30 on the school’s Princeton campus, was a first-time collaboration between the school’s “Girls Take Charge” program and the National Center for Girls’ Leadership, which aims to instill the standards of values, intellect, agency/advocacy, collaboration and vision.

“[It] is committed to preparing girls for lives of exceptional leadership and service,” explained NCGL director Bonnie Milecki. “All curricula is focused on middle school girls and their social, academic and leadership development, and custom designed for this age group with their diverse skills.”

St. Mary Academy, Manahawkin, has hosted its weekly Knights Summer Camp – now in its third year – for both St. Mary students and public school children from the surrounding community. Its popularity is a testament to the program’s success.

“Because we were open last summer and didn’t have any cases and/or outbreak of COVID-19, our [enrollment] increased drastically,” attested Lizanne Coyne, principal of St. Mary Academy. “We went from having two groups of 10 campers each week last summer, to six groups of 12 each week this summer.”

Following the current recommendations of the New Jersey Department of Health, the Knights Summer Camp has operated safely amid the pandemic for two summers, giving the school an opportunity in 2020 to implement recommendations before the academic year began in September.

What’s in Store

Mentors and educators in Stuart’s #LEADLIKEAGIRL camp led group discussions to learn the girls’ definition of eadership and what traits and skills leaders need to have, then engaged in self-reflection activities to discern what leadership style best suited them. The “Dreams Took Flight” project helped envision their future dreams and goals; confidence-building exercises showed the campers that sharing their gifts and traits was not boastful but rather positive.

Activities such as crafting tote bags with positive messages, creating a “Dreams Took Flight” hot air balloon that envisioned future goals, writing exercises, zip line design and a team project where groups planned and built creative miniature golf holes kept the young campers on the move.

In St. Mary’s Knights Summer Camp, head instructors are all current St. Mary Academy faculty members, assisted by counselors who have either graduated from Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, or are currently enrolled there.

The camp is broken into two age groups – Junior Knights, ages four through seven, and Knights, ages eight through 11. Activities run the gamut from indoor to outdoor, employing sports and movement, creativity, STEM and other academic subjects.

Meeting the Need

“Research shows that, as girls progress through middle school and high school, their confidence levels decline while a boy’s confidence level rises,” wrote Milecki in one of the nightly missives emailed to Stuart camper parents. “Our hope is that we provide a forum for girls to discuss the confidence struggles amongst peers, and work on strategies to avoid the significant decline.”

The challenges of peer relationships and friendships known as “girl drama” were also addressed. Milecki noted, “Sometimes there are not easy answers, but again we try to create a positive, comfortable atmosphere where girls can share their ideas and thoughts and realize that they all have similar feelings they can identify with. As growing leaders, they will need to continue to ‘hush’ the noise of criticism and identify and surround themselves with fellow visionary builders.”

“The goals of Knights Summer Camp have been to provide the children with opportunities to experience the socialization they have been missing, participate in fun academic learning activities, and enjoy outdoor fun,” Coyne said.

However, the campers themselves are perhaps the foremost authorities on the camp’s value.

“This is the best camp I’ve ever been to,” said Michael, a local public school student.  “We do different things each day and have so much fun … I love to read …. I can’t wait to come back next summer. The day goes by too fast.”

Luke, a St. Mary Academy student, chimed in and said, “When we are doing academic work, we hardly know it because the work is fun. We play sports, we read and we learn. This camp is great because we can still read, do fun activities like building robots, and play different sports all in the same day.”

Despite the pandemic’s toll on education, Coyne has not witnessed setbacks among the campers. “None of them have displayed any challenges of this past year,” she said. “The children have adapted beautifully.”