ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST — The rain came early on a recent Tuesday at Camp Hi-Hill.
By 2 p.m. the sky had clouded over and moisture cloaked the trees--inclement weather by almost anyone's standards. Not bad enough, however, to dissuade more than 100 sixth-graders from donning their raincoats for two-hour treks through the mush.
"My mom really wanted me to be up here," said Chris Moland, 11, a student at Madison Elementary School in Long Beach. His mother had attended the camp as a child in the 1950s. "She said she had a good time and that I'd have a great one."
"It's fun," said Matt Howit, of Kettering Elementary. "It's not like a regular camp where you just play games and stuff. Here you learn something."
For 39 years the Long Beach Unified School District has offered each of its sixth-graders an opportunity to "learn something" by spending a week during the regular school year with classmates and teachers at this rustic nature camp near Mt. Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. And generations have responded, in some cases gaining impressions they passed on to their children.
All that may be about to change. Like other entities within the school district, Camp Hi-Hill has been affected by recent enrollment increases dramatic enough to spark proposals for year-round schooling as well as construction of new schools. So the camp--which can handle about 140 youngsters at a time who pay an average of $20 apiece for the experience--is bulging at the seams.
And if things don't change, administrators say, Hi-Hill next year may have to turn students away for the first time in its history.
"We'd have a very difficult time explaining that to the children," said Fred Partridge, the camp school's resident principal for the last 22 years.
To prevent that, the district is planning a major fund-raising effort to pay for a proposed $500,000 expansion. The first step: letters to be sent to parents in the next two weeks asking them to consider donating all or part of their state income tax rebates scheduled to arrive by mail throughout November and December.
"Time is running out for Hi-Hill," the letters begin. "Some children may miss out."
The district decided to rely on personal donations, according to district spokesman Dick Van der Laan, because construction money in the budget is already committed to projects augmenting regular classroom space. By asking for parental donations, he said, the district hopes to benefit from the Gann spending initiative which put limits on the amount of money the state can spend, thus resulting in personal rebates this year expected to range from $80 to $200 per family.
"Our hope is that the community and Hi-Hill alumni will come through on this," Partridge said. "We want their children to be secure in having the same experience that many of them had."
Began in 1948
Those experiences began in 1948 when the facility, a former pack station and Campfire Girl camp then owned by the City of Long Beach, first opened its doors to about 30 sixth-graders from Roosevelt Elementary School. Patterned after a similar program in San Diego, the Long Beach camp emphasizes natural science and conservation taught by an experienced on-site staff and supplemented before and afterward by regular classroom teachers.
"It's a fabulous experience for them," said Fred Korach, a teacher at Madison Elementary who has been accompanying his students to Hi-Hill on and off for 15 years. "They're getting a real appreciation of the outdoors and a chance to inter-relate in a way that they can't in the city."
Besides taking guided nature hikes, engaging in special projects in botany, geology, ecology, and astronomy and learning about water and resource conservation, the children--many of whom experience their first extended absences from home at Hi-Hill--live and work together in small cabins under the tutelage of adult counselors. "It's a tremendous social experience," Korach said.
Judging from the success of the camp school over the years, many agree. In recent decades, other Los Angeles-area school districts have created similar camp programs. And by 1954 enough pupils were attending the Long Beach camp to necessitate the leasing of a second facility at Idylwild, later replaced by one called Alpine in the San Bernardino Mountains. Three years later a third site was leased called Camp O-Ongo.
At its height in the early 1960s, the local outdoor science program was attracting 6,400 students a year, roughly 98% of the sixth-grade class. Then, in a widespread trend signaling the end of the postwar baby boom, enrollments began to decline. In 1978, the district--having already dropped Alpine and O-Ongo--decided to purchase Hi-Hill from the city and expand it to handle the fewer than 4,000 students then attending annually.