Private schools mine summer camp lode Benefits: Area's institutions follow U.S. trend, gaining extra cash and exposure by offering hundreds of sports, arts and academic programs during school year lull.

July 30, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Once sleepy places in July and August, Baltimore-area independent schools and their campuses now buzz all summer with activity -- and nearly as many youngsters as during the school year.

They are home to camps specializing in sports from wrestling to water polo, activities from art to etiquette, and academic programs that try to catch kids up, keep them from slipping behind or push them a step ahead.

As camping has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry nationwide, private schools have found a niche, providing supervised, enriching activities while opening campuses to a broad audience and generating cash. Camps also provide employment for teachers and for hundreds of high school and college students working as counselors.

"The buildings are just swarming with these high-energy kids," said Patrick Smithwick, a spokesman for the Gilman School, where no fewer than 15 programs bring more than 700 youngsters to the Roland Avenue campus from mid-June to mid-August. Like many other schools, Gilman operates some camps itself and has contractual agreements with individuals and companies for others.

"Summer activities at our schools vary greatly," said Margaret Goldsborough, director of public relations for the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington. "There are some that generate revenue, some that are revenue-neutral and some that they have to do fund raising for."

Although day camps are not new -- McDonogh School has operated one for 62 years, Friends School for nearly 40 -- the summertime surge is being driven by parents, who are searching for child care and meaningful vacation experiences.

In 15 years, the number of day camps nationwide has jumped 89 percent, and in the past five years, the number of campers is up more than 13 percent, according to the American Camping Association in Martinsville, Ind. Sports camps are particularly popular.

At the same time, private schools realize that letting buildings, fields and pools sit idle for months is not the best use for them, Goldsborough said. The goodwill and the revenue -- albeit a small percentage of a school's total budget -- generated by camps help to continue and enrich the main academic programs.

"The purpose of the school is to be the center of the community," said Gilman's Smithwick. "Following in that theme, it continues to function at a brisk pace in the summer."

At the Park School in Brooklandville, Jim Howard ran the first summer program with 32 children in 1970. This summer, he's directing a six-week camp of 400, a staff of 110 and hundreds of activities.

"We've never lost money," said Howard, adding that Park's camp is "very profitable. But we certainly serve the school not only in revenue, but in bringing students to Park."

No school openly uses summer programs to recruit students, but "it's the icing on the cake" when it happens, said Rick Thompson, director of Camp Red Eagle at McDonogh in Owings Mills.

At Park, McDonogh and many other private schools, camp revenues are channeled to the operating budget, helping to close the gap between what students pay and what it costs to educate them.

Despite big price tags, independent schools nationally raise only about 80 percent of their operating budgets through tuition and fees, said Goldsborough. The rest comes from gifts, grants, auxiliary services such as lunches and transportation, and other programs that include summer camps and workshops.

These other programs provide, on average, 2 percent to 5.7 lTC percent of a school's operating budget, she said. Boarding schools typically generate the most money from these programs. At elementary and secondary day schools such as Gilman and Park, the national average is 2.6 percent of the budget, according to association statistics.

The cost of day camps is as varied as the offerings. Nationwide, the price ranges from $15 to $55 a day, said Bob Schultz, national director of public relations for the American Camping Association.

Locally, prices average about $125 to $250 per week.

Camps grow by adding more groups in successful activities and by creating new programs. In the past few years, Park found that "a lot of kids had insatiable appetites for adventure" so it added two three-week outings that include backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting and long-distance bicycling trips, Howard said.

McDonogh's camping program began in the 1930s with 10 groups of day campers engaged in traditional activities such as swimming, horseback riding and crafts, with an emphasis on fun, said Thompson. Now, choices include not only the day camp but also visual and performing arts, an all-day sports camp and one-week specialty clinics.

For private schools, the major cost of operating a camp is the staff; camper/counselor ratios are generally small. The schools underwrite the camps by opening their facilities and supplying utilities and even some administrative services.

"There really is a major area of costs that is not measured, and we all know it," said Bobby Levin, assistant headmaster at Friends School on Charles Street.

Nevertheless, most camps have something to contribute to the operating budget when the summer's over.

"Yes, we hope we can get a little surplus," said Levin. This summer, Friends has 23 programs, attracting at least 500 youngsters.

"But if it didn't happen tomorrow, it's hard to say what you would lose," added Levin. "You would lose a little bit of revenue, and every bit counts."

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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