In 2019, my friend Jal Mehta and his colleague Sarah Fine, thinking about whether high schools could adopt some of the best qualities of summer camp, wrote:
The answer to this question begins at a summer music camp that one of us attended in the mid-90s as a high school student. The camp was an idyllic enclave nestled in the mountains of Vermont. Campers spent the morning practicing, taking private music lessons and rehearsing with their assigned chamber groups. They spent the afternoons playing pickup games of Frisbee and debating the existence of God.
What made this place tick? There were just enough rules that everyone stayed safe. There were high standards of quality but also a culture of mutual support. There was blend of structure and open-endedness, practice and play.
A second element was the emphasis on relating to students as whole people. Beyond formally coaching the campers, the music staff ate with them, played with them, even sometimes paused to join the hillside debates.
Their take provoked me. I’ve founded a high school and cofounded many other schools, but never with the summer-camp mindset. I always chased hard-nosed academic gains and college readiness, with some success and plenty of mistakes.
So, this summer, my friend Orin and I created a summer camp called “Hoop Brains.” It was held at a beautiful private school gym in suburban Boston. Campers split their time between on-court time and classroom learning—creating podcasts about the NBA, learning just enough stats to compare players, etc.—and we sprinkled in fun skills competitions and simulations.
We carefully measured student and parent perceptions. They loved it, and these kids had been to many basketball camps. Why did this one outperform their other camps?
One, we followed Mehta and Fine’s second element to a tee: Beyond formally coaching the campers, we ate with them, played with them, joined their debates.
Two, we deployed a greatest hits collection of “moves” from our experience with “no excuses” schools, which stacked up to a better experience:
- When a camper was struggling, we pulled him out for one-on-one basketball tutoring.
- When two campers didn’t get along, we jumped in early, instead of letting things flare.
- When evaluation data showed my NBA strategy class wasn’t all that great, we cut it entirely for the rest of the week.
- We went above and beyond in parent communication.
- We cold-called rather than letting one excited kid answer 90 percent of the questions.
- We rebalanced rosters until teams felt equal, so all the games were close. Blowouts create frustration.
Three, we were able to easily generate a racially and economically diverse camp using scholarships. Although school integration is hard, camp integration is comparatively easy. A number of parents noticed that and appreciated that.
Back to Mehta and Fine: Should high school be like summer camp?
It’s important to acknowledge our tradeoff. Our key metric was overall satisfaction. It was not to actually improve campers’ basketball skills or knowledge. If a camper improved 10 percent but could have improved 20 percent, we were OK with that tradeoff if they loved their hour-by-hour experience. It’s just basketball! In fact, we described that tradeoff on our website, so it was transparent to kids and parents.
Where the rubber meets the road: At a high school, would that tradeoff feel OK with reading and math and so forth, if students remained lower than they could have been?
It wouldn’t be enough (dayenu) if the only high school outcome was “immediate student satisfaction.” Underneath satisfaction, we need to believe that the camper or student has a hard-to-quantify “overall improvement as a person,” such as some gains in their confidence and perspectives. Or put another way, we need to believe that, if admission to “Summer Camp High School” was based on a lottery, that the graduates who attended would, in ten years, outperform a control group in overall life outcomes, like happiness, family stability, and job satisfaction.
This summer camp experience moved me closer to the Mehta and Fine point of view.