Sixth grade camp: 70 years of nature, human and otherwise, at Cuyamaca

Sixth-grader Josh Zientek literally immersed himself in a cutting-edge educational tool: a tub of mud.

“Get your hands in there and mix it up,” Sharyl Massey, an instructor, told a gaggle of 12- and 13-year-olds gathered in a greenhouse. They were preparing soil for milkweed seeds that some day will sprout and nourish flocks of migrating Monarch butterflies.

For 70 years, Cuyamaca Outdoor School — better known as sixth grade camp — has specialized in such hands-on, low-tech assignments. Even today there’s a decided lack of laptops or iPads, but few seem to mind.

“I’d probably give it a nine out of 10,” said Josh, a student at Encinitas’ El Camino Creek Elementary School, when asked to grade his five days at camp. “It’s very interactive, a very fun way to learn.”

That’s been true for generations. While today’s lessons reflect current requirements and knowledge of the natural world, the school’s textbooks have been the same for 70 years: plants, animals, stars.

Now in her third year at camp, Whitaker has called 911 on a few occasions, as a handful of students have suffered seizures, asthma attacks and — once — a broken bone. More common were the complaints she fielded on a recent afternoon. A boy came in with a nose bleed, a girl a headache.

“We can fix that,” the nurse told each kid, breaking out Kleenex for one and ibuprofen for the other.

This school year, more than 11,000 students will attend camp. All will have a different experience, yet each will become part of a long, widespread local tradition. Baseball great Tony Gwynn’s children came here, as did the offspring of skateboard Tony Hawk. One month before the 2012 presidential election, campers included two grandchildren of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“Nobody talked politics,” said Susanne Beattie, one of the camp’s two head teachers.

With deer to track, woodpeckers to spot, California live oaks to measure, constellations to identify and stories to spin around the campfire, presidential debates can wait. “A lot of the kids come from the city,” Beattie said, “and they’ve never seen the night sky without all the lights.”

Even when they are not visible, the stars are present. And even after students go home from camp, something of its influence lingers.

“Kids are never the same after they come back from sixth grade camp,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a bonding experience.”

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