As an assistant principal at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, John Berry saw how removing students from their familiar everyday world could break down cultural stereotypes. That’s because many Gunn students attended the national program Camp Everytown, an intensive four-day retreat in the Santa Cruz mountain town of Boulder Creek aimed at lessening prejudices and promoting understanding about differences in race, ethnicity, religion and culture.
In 2001, Berry became assistant principal at Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School—and found pronounced levels of sexism, gender stereotyping, racial slurs, disrespect, bullying, homophobia and loneliness among students there.
“The Tam students needed a venue and program in which to explore these issues off campus in a trusting and supportive environment away from their parents,” says Berry, now a principal at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael. Berry recruited Tam teachers to get involved as camp chaperones, solicited names of potential student participants, raised money (funds are needed each year to send teens to the camp cost-free), coordinated transportation, sold the idea to the Tam Board of Trustees and created follow-up committees at school to keep the goodwill and momentum alive after the students returned.
“The camp is really about learning how to live together better by uncovering the social challenges [and] inadequacies that persist in our teenage culture and then observe and analyze them through a slightly more humane and educated lens,” Berry says.
Eric Saibel, a former Spanish teacher at Tam whom Berry recruited to be involved with Camp Everytown, says it’s one of the greatest things he’s done. “As an administrator, John Berry is often on the front lines of the oftentimes harsh realities of the high school social landscape,” says Saibel, who is now an assistant principal at Drake High School. Tam High “looked like a model of diversity on the outside,” he adds. “But Tam is no island, and deeper undercurrents of mistrust and misunderstanding between races and genders are alive and well.”
Berry hopes participation at the camp will change those feelings. Activities there include evening workshops in key skills like conflict mediation, decision-making, leadership, communication and gender relations. There’s also a culture and talent night, which highlights the contributions and uniqueness of the students’ many different backgrounds, and a segregation exercise, where the teens are placed in real situations that help them better understand feelings of cultural isolation and reinforce the lessons in empathy they’ve learned.
“We want our students to adopt a ‘making a difference’ mantra at the end of their experience and move that message ahead,” says Berry.
At the camp, Saibel saw African-American, Caucasian, Latino and Asian students who might have never met at school sit next to each other during meals, play together during brief recesses and hug each other after performances and group discussions.
“It was as if, once away from the straight edges of our campus mini-society, they practiced a spontaneous culture of inclusion and self-extension, not the protectionism of the familiar group,” he says. “I realized that those students gathered in the blue light of dawn were risk-takers; they had learned the most important lesson they could ever take away from high school.”
Tam is working at adopting what students are learning at camp in their current social issues curriculum so students can integrate and celebrate what it means to be different and civic minded.
To donate to Camp Everytown, send a check made out to Tamalpais High School (write “Camp Everytown” on the memo line) and mail to Tamalpais High School, 700 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.