I spent each of my college summers working at a regular summer camp. It wasn’t a law and forensic science camp, or a soccer camp, or an SAT camp. It was the kind of camp where kids spend their free time swimming or playing cards, where “skill-building” was less about getting better at archery than about learning to talk to strangers, to try new things, and to be away from home.
I loved the camp. I watched extroverted kids discover they could be leaders. I watched kids who felt isolated or frustrated at school invent new selves at camp and make new friends. These kids grew up to feel more comfortable at college, to feel more confident meeting new people, and perhaps to be more academically successful, though the latter wasn’t exactly the point. We were interested in fun, and secondarily, in “growth,” an amorphous term, but an important one.
My first year teaching the SAT in a classroom in New York, I had a student named Christine who wanted to study environmental science in Central Park. Her parents had told her that she couldn’t: the SAT was too important, and so she spent 8 weeks in my classroom, improving her score. Her score went up, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were robbing her of the potential to pursue her intellectual passion, or at the very least of a break from a high school experience that seems to get more frenetic and more competitive every year.
I created my SAT camp the following summer. In three weeks at a summer academy or camp, I was certain we could get better score improvements than at an 8-week, in-class program, yet I wanted our camp to be more than just a vehicle for score improvements. I wanted our students to have free time to explore and make new friends; I wanted them to have the opportunity to take unusual elective courses, to play sports, and to share their intellectual passions with young teachers eager to share their own. One of our first elective courses was environmental science. When I told Christine about it, she approved.
Over the last nine years, we have worked tirelessly to improve every facet of camp. Thanks to the “coaching program,” our high teacher-to-student ratio, a myriad of interactive SAT activities, and our emphasis on 1-on-1 and small-group tutoring, the average improvement for students who had not yet taken a comprehensive SAT course has become over 400 points. We have achieved these improvements -- on the old SAT -- without sacrificing balance and fun. Camp is full of free time, sports, impromptu piano playing, water balloon fights, and campfires. Teachers and students bond over barbecues and games of capture of the flag. One student one summer told me in his testimonial that that ours was the best camp he had been to. I clarified what he meant (as I didn't want to oversell the endorsement): “the best academic camp?” I said. No, he answered. Of all the camps, including the recreational ones, ours was the best. He had studied the SAT before, but never improved. At our camp, his score went up 240 points. One kind of growth facilitated the other.
Summer is about growth. And growth is about more than test scores. It’s about free time, community, and intellectual exploration. It’s about getting away from the city and making new friends, about meeting adults who want you to succeed and who take the time to share their passion with you. At an SAT camp, growth is about improvement on the SAT, certainly. But it can be more than that. and it should be.
We work hard on both kinds of growth. That’s what we’re about. And what’s why so many of our teachers come back, summer after summer, for Saturday night campfires under the stars.