Attendance at a coastal environmental education camp run by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office is falling as public schools grapple with tight budgets.
Supporters of the Kern Environmental Education Program, better known as Camp KEEP, say they hope that will turn around this year because of the passage of Proposition 30, a sales and income tax initiative that generates money for local school districts.
In the meantime, schools are playing it safe by pushing existing fundraisers and adding new ones. A new group in Weedpatch, for instance, is raising money online to send underprivileged Sunset Middle School students to camp.
Teacher Kala Bogursky helped found Kids Going Places to fill in the gaps after Sunset cut spending on field trips and camp.
“We wanted to bring back experiential learning,” Bogursky said. “All the things we all grew up with like camp and field trips just aren’t available to so many of our students anymore.”
Young people at Camp KEEP learn about wildlife, conservation and the environment by interacting with nature on the Central Coast.
In Kern County, it’s a rite of passage to sell candy bars to raise money for Camp KEEP. Just about anyone who lives in the region has either sold them him or herself or been pitched by a child wielding a box of chocolates.
It costs $237 per student to attend Camp KEEP, a five-day program in two locations: KEEP Ocean at Montaña de Oro State Park and KEEP Cambria Pines in Cambria.
KCSOS covers the $1.8 million a year annual operating cost of the program, but parents pay the $237 fee — assuming their child doesn’t sell enough chocolate to wipe that out.
“We’ve really tried hard not to raise that price over the years to keep it affordable,” said KCSOS spokesman Rob Meszaros.
But to the poorest families, $237 may as well be a million, said Bogursky.
“Who the heck are they going to sell chocolate to?” she said. “All their friends and relatives all live in the same poor neighborhood.”
Schools can apply for foundation campership funds, which are awarded in the spring of each year for the following school year. Need is determined by the percentage of students in a school’s free and reduced lunch program.
Some high poverty districts also do their own separate fundraisers to supplement foundation funds.
The $237 camp fee for parents doesn’t include transportation to and from camp, which is the responsibility of schools still reeling from several consecutive years of budget cuts and deferred payments from the state. It also falls to schools to recruit chaperones, usually parents. Those adults generally pay to go to camp, too, but with high unemployment in Kern County, a lot of them can’t afford to go, either.
That’s made camp a luxury beyond reach in some sectors.
At one time, Camp KEEP served about 7,000 fifth- and sixth-graders a year, but last year the program drew 5,298 students.
“We did see a dip in attendance when things were so tough a few years ago, but we’re hoping with camperships and the great work of the foundation, that more of our kids will be able to benefit from the camp experience,” said Desiree Von Flue, assistant superintendent of educational services for KCSOS.
That would be the Camp KEEP Foundation, which raises money to support the camp and low-income school districts that otherwise might not be able to send students. This year for the first time it will be selling Camp KEEP alumni T-shirts.
The foundation has awarded $22,000 in camperships this school year. The amount has hovered around that number for the last seven years, the lowest being $18,000 in 2007-’08 and the highest $22,887 in 2010-’11.
On Dec. 12, Sparkling Image Car Wash presented the foundation with a $9,000 check, proceeds from setting aside a portion of sales in September.
“It’s a great, local cause, and it benefits education,” said Pete Nani, director of operations at Sparkling Image.
A half dozen or so Stockdale Elementary School sixth-graders who will be going to camp this year attended a formal check presentation, beaming over an oversized mock check.
Stockdale teacher Kathy Jackson, who has been taking students to Camp KEEP for years, said it’s more than just fun.
There’s hard data that the science test scores of Camp KEEP alumni are about 25 percent higher than those of students who didn’t go to camp, she said.
“State science standards include knowledge of the environment,” Jackson said.
Chloe Mauldin, 11, says she’s been dreaming of going to Camp KEEP since kindergarten.
“I grew up hearing all my cousins talk about how fun and different it is and how they loved learning about the ocean,” she said.
And it’s a bonding opportunity, said Monisha Lewis, 11.
“My two older sisters went, and they said before school everyone in sixth grade didn’t really know each other, but after Camp KEEP, they came back family,” she said.
Preston Durbin, now a 13-year-old at Tevis Junior High School, attended Camp KEEP when he was a student at Hart Elementary School.
Like many of the region’s students, he had never been to sleep away camp before, and really enjoyed it.
“I got to see different animals that I’d never seen before, and I got to touch them, too,” he said.
Students go on daily hikes, including to tide pools where they can see and feel oysters, urchins and other sea creatures.
Braden Beck, now 12 and at Tevis, attended Camp KEEP when he was a student at Laurelglen Elementary School.
He said it was great to see science “up close and personal.”
“It was really fun and amazing, with beautiful views. I think all kids deserve that,” Braden said.
His father, who accompanied Braden as a counselor, said it’s a shame more children can’t take advantage of the opportunity.
“I can’t say enough about the job the staff did in communicating the wonders of nature and to stimulate children to learn more about it and create interest over the long haul,” said Jim Beck. “The kids really learn to think more about the environment and nature, and there’s just something about being there that’s not the same as learning about it in a movie or a book.
“It’s just a special experience.”