Dilapidated camp a vision of hope for troubled students

Teacher wants to turn site into place of inspiration, but money is an issue

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoKarl Johnson, a teacher at Summit View Middle School in Battle Ground, watches as his students work on a math assignment. A seven-year teaching veteran, Johnson focuses on alternative education.

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BATTLE GROUND -- An unassuming sign hangs at the entrance of a private dirt road matted by rain-slicked leaves. Made of wood, with an artisan's touch, it heralds what's ahead.

It reads: "Camp Hope."

Nestled among the trees on 107 acres near the East Fork of the Lewis River are the dilapidated remains of a Girl Scout camp, Camp Julianna, which has fallen into disrepair since the scouts stopped using it in 1996. It doesn't seem like much, with open-air lean-tos in the adirondrack style cropped up like shanty huts, but Karl Johnson views it as a sort of rustic fixer-upper.

The alternative-education teacher

at Summit View Middle School has ambitious designs for the camp. Using a combination of private investment and some public assistance, Johnson envisions turning the camp into a place of transformative power.

But it will likely take time. And money.

His top goal would be a first for the county: creating a new kind of classroom.

Walking through the camp, he underscores his vision. "We can do school here," he says.

Johnson says he believes the camp could be a powerful influence on students' lives.

As a teacher, he works with kids who have fallen through the cracks of traditional schools.

Since the beginning of the year, Johnson has been one of two teachers serving students at the newly formed Summit View Middle School, an alternative learning annex located in a modular building at the Chief Umtuch Middle School campus in Battle Ground.

The school is tied to Summit View High School, which was also formed as an alternative school. Both schools are intended for students who don't necessarily fit into a traditional educational setting. For a variety of reasons, the students have lost touch with the typical school experience.

No easy fix

As it stands, Clark County technically owns the camp.

But in June, county commissioners agreed to lease it to a nonprofit board for $1 a year. The board wants to get Camp Hope up and running.

As the force behind the proposal, Johnson used his connections with outgoing Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt to do so.

Boldt and Johnson agreed that the camp could best serve the community under the auspices of an independent nonprofit, which would serve the school district and other organizations.

With a new year on the horizon, Johnson is looking toward forming partnerships and raising money for his pet project. He's already laid the groundwork to mold Camp Hope into a place various groups could use.

A small fundraiser in October, held at the camp, raised more than $27,500 to redevelop buildings there and take care of a neglected forest.

As Johnson walks along the looping backwoods paths of Camp Hope that lead from one group of sleeper units to another -- there are four total, some containing several open-faced buildings that encircle fire pits -- he can see what's ahead of him, through the rain.

His students could attend classes at the camp during the school year, he says. During the summer, they could attend minicamps or gain work experience -- clearing wood or running a small business. The camp would also be open to church or community groups.

"It's for those kids, with a real face who look at me every day, some with no dads, some of them with tragic stories," Johnson told county commissioners over the summer. "But absolutely, the goal of this camp is to look at it under the context of what's best for at-risk youth."

Walking through the camp months later, he elaborates.

"I can change their lives," he says, "but I can't do it unless groups come together."

Plugging holes

Proponents of Camp Hope say it could fill a hole the county has been unable to plug for years.

Alternative education programs throughout Washington run the gamut -- from science, technology, engineering and math programs, known as STEM, to digital learning curriculums or alternative schools. But outdoor schools haven't caught on.

Brad Sprague, the executive director of the Washington Association of Learning Alternatives, says there have been challenges in setting up new alternative education programs, and those challenges likely won't go away.

"Unless (teachers) have been through an alternative program in the past, it's a huge endeavor to undertake," he says.

The main reason is the cost. In recent years, alternative learning programs have lost millions of dollars in state funding, Sprague says. That money may not fully return in the future, even as Gov. Chris Gregoire proposes a $1 billion boost to state education funding.

Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation doesn't have the money to make its own proposed fixes at the camp either, despite starting a master plan for the camp's redevelopment four years ago.

In August 2009, the county parks and recreation department conducted a preliminary feasibility study of the camp.

But the county never completed the plan.

By the end of 2010, the number of staff members allocated to the project, along with limited funding for the planning effort, were re-assigned to other efforts, says Jean Akers, a parks planner.

Johnson says that's why he wants to continue raising money through his nonprofit board to redevelop the camp. His dreams may be several years from coming to reality, but he has his own hope that they will come true.

After bringing his students to Camp Hope once, he realized the place had power.

"The trick is," he says, "now I can use this camp during the summer, but also during the school year."

Not a walk in the park

On a typical wet day at the camp, rain splashes against moss-speckled wooden rooftops, sending sheets of water cascading down below. But whether rain or shine, Johnson bounds through the camp beaming. Even in the damp darkness of the forest, he sees possibilities, slivers of life in the corners of the water-logged camp.

"We've got to do this right," Johnson says. "What we're trying to do now is make sure we have the capital plan right."

There's a lot of work that needs to be done. For one, Johnson will have to build a new cafeteria, perhaps the most important building at the camp.

Standing atop of the concrete slab where the building would go, Johnson estimates that building alone will cost $500,000. Combined, all the work at Camp Hope will likely cost $1 million.

So far, Johnson has raised about $100,000.

Johnson shrugs off the costs.

A former contractor who built schools before he taught in them, Johnson says he knows what type of work needs to be done at the site. More than that, he has contractor friends who can do the work.

Some of the work will involve punching new roads into the property--a recommendation of the county's unfinished master plan--which will come at a considerable cost.

Those roads, if there are multiple ones, will come in addition to putting up new buildings and refurbishing others, such as possibly walling up the sleeper units, which currently have one side open to the elements.

And then he'll have to cut down dying trees throughout the camp, which have suffered from years of neglect.

He wants to turn the camp into a jewel. It can be a place where both church and school groups can go. As a community space, Johnson believes Camp Hope could combat drugs, violence and student depression.

"This camp is a lot like my (students)," Johnson says.

They've both been forgotten.

Students eager

During a midweek math lesson in Johnson's class, the students have trouble paying attention. It's the end of the day, and students have begun clock watching. With each tick-tock of the seconds hand, the students know they're one second closer to freedom. Many talk and squirm in their seats, chattering the entire time.

That's when it's time for a teachable moment.

As class winds down, Johnson leaves his students with something to mull: There are two things that bother him about the current generation of young people, he says. One is that too many are apathetic, the other is that they're OK with glorifying ignorance.

That needs to change, Johnson tells his students.

"Your generation is the generation that will save us," he says.

It's a message that, on occasion, he needs to be creative to drive home.

Connecting with the students can be a challenge, Johnson says. But Camp Hope could bridge the teacher-student divide.

photoTiernan Jojo works on a math assignment after class at Summit View Middle School in Battle Ground. She’s been to Camp Hope, and says she wants to take classes there.

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Eighth grader Tiernan Jojo, 14, says she'd like a place where students from different backgrounds can feel comfortable together. In the past, she hasn't always felt welcome at school.

"I think it would work for us," she says of the camp. "We'd have our own place."

She came to Summit View at the beginning of the school year, and she doesn't know whether she'd stick to school if the program didn't exist.

Before coming to the program, she missed half the year at her traditional school. Looking toward the next year, she doesn't know how she'll fare in high school.

It would help if she could stay in the current program, Jojo says, so she remains noncommittal about her high school years.

"I'll try my best," she says.

What might stand in her way is a tandem of influences: The kids and teachers at a traditional high school. She says she doesn't relate to them.

Jasmine Gainey, a 13-year-old seventh grader, says she'd love to take classes out in the forest.

"Sometimes," she says, "we just need a break from being inside."

Johnson has seen that desire for a change of pace firsthand. When he took the students to the camp, their behavior shifted dramatically, he says.

"They came down here and it was like night and day," Johnson says. "I don't know if it was because they were outside or what."

Summit View High School Principal Bill Penrose also has high hopes for the camp.

But even as a supporter of the project, he keeps his hopes tempered by what could happen: Money and resolve are two obstacles that proponents of the project need to hurdle.

A nearly year-round outdoor program has never been done before.

"I think it's possible," Penrose says reflectively. "This is the dream part of what Summit View Middle School could become."

Turning that dream into reality remains Johnson's goal.

He remembers the first time he took his students to the camp.

"I could see the lines on their faces literally go away," Johnson says. "And when you see that as a teacher, you say to yourself ... 'holy cow.'"

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.