New Camp Colton Coordinator Mary Giannola was beaming as dozens of sixth-graders from Sinagua Middle School marched out into the forest last Wednesday to collect dragonfly nymphs, pull invasive plant species and explore the natural wonders of their giant outdoor laboratory.
“This is by far the coolest job on Earth,” Giannola said. “It combines everything that I have ever worked for in my whole life.”
Located on Hart Prairie in the Coconino National Forest, Camp Colton is a 33-acre environmental education and camping facility owned and operated by Flagstaff Unified School District. In more than four decades, the camp has provided around 40,000 FUSD sixth-graders with a free three-night, four-day excursion into nature.
“Our overarching mission is to help kids engage with and explore the wonders of the natural environment,” said Friends of Camp Colton Executive Director Tracy Anderson, who runs the fundraising organization that keeps the camp going. “It’s also a wonderful character development opportunity for our kids. For many of them, it’s the first time camping or the first time away from home.”
FUSD hired Giannola to run Camp Colton this summer when Executive Director Cameron Kern retired after more than 20 years in the position. Her first few months were a trial by fire, with five students contracting a rare tick-borne disease at the camp in August. It reopened Sept. 2 after the Camp Colton staff completed a mitigation list compiled by county health officials.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Giannola said. “I’ve learned so much and I have been so fortunate to have the support of the county health team and the administration in the district.”
18 years as teacher
Giannola is only the fourth person to run Camp Colton, which is now in its 43rd year of operation. Before that, she was a science, math and special education teacher with 18 years of classroom experience, including 12 years at Flagstaff High School. She and her husband were also the directors of the St. Joseph's Youth Camp at Mormon Lake for 11 years.
She calls her new position at Camp Colton the “dream job” she never thought would open up.
“It’s always just been a love interest of mine, to be outdoors,” Giannola said, recalling her active childhood. “Because I had such a large family, every weekend, we would go boulder jumping with my dad. I just thought it was because he was a family-oriented man — which he was — but he was just trying to tire us all out.”
Giannola said she wanted her own children and her students to have similar experiences.
“There’s so much out here to offer, as far as academics go,” Giannola said. “For those kids who have a hard time learning in a regular classroom setting because they have so much energy, what better way is there to learn? They’re the most successful because they finally get the chance to run at the same time that they’re learning. They’re actively involved or they’re touching everything. It’s that engagement that’s so important.”
Since taking over at Camp Colton in July, Giannola has made a few changes to the curriculum, which is based on the Common Core and focuses largely on science. For the first time in years, students are now able to venture to the lava tubes at Government Cave for their geology lessons and hike the trail to Veit Springs for their history lesson.
“To me, having the excursions — to be able to take them into even more of the environment and not just being on the property — has been huge,” Giannola said.
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She said the staff is still looking at ways to improve the curriculum, which she described as “rigorous.”
“When we talk about curriculum, we want to take it to the next level,” she said. “How can we make this hands-on? How can we make it more engaging? How can we help them to remember? How can we get the kids to be invested in their knowledge?”
Her staff is also now accommodating class sizes of about 90 students, up from about 80 in previous years. That way, she said, schools do not have to split their sixth-grade classes into multiple trips to Camp Colton, which can disrupt a teacher’s curriculum.
“We’re trying something new and, so far, we’re doing OK with it,” she said. “We’re increasing our numbers a little bit. The idea is, we’re not only accommodating the kids but we’re going to accommodate the teachers and the principals, as well.”
New food trucks
To help, FUSD has brought in a new food truck to prepare meals more efficiently than the camps’ old wood-burning stove from the 1800s could.
The camp has six daytime educators who pair up with the middle school teachers for each lesson, six night counselors, a full-time registered nurse, a cook and a coordinator’s assistant. Most of the staffers have science degrees.
Through donations, the staff is able to provide any equipment a student may need for the camping trip. The staff is also trained to accommodate students with food allergies and other health concerns, learning disabilities and financial worries.
“No one has to miss out on the experience,” Giannola said. “That’s the coolest thing.”
Friends of Camp Colton Board Member Soonie Wilson McDavid, whose parents donated the land for the camp to FUSD back in 1976, said Giannola has already brought a new kind of energy to the camp.
“It’s been amazing being part of the visioning of where it’s going to go,” Wilson said McDavid. “It’s very exciting, the plans that we have.”
Summer schedule in works
Extending the number of days Camp Colton operates is among those plans. Traditionally, the camp has been open around 16 weeks a year from August to October and from April to May. Giannola is working with the school district and Friends of Camp Colton to figure out how to keep it open over the summer starting in 2015.
Giannola said her favorite part of her new job is seeing the students get engaged.
“The fact that it’s open and successful and the kids are having a good time means that we’re doing something right,” Giannola said.