Although it began due to a tragedy, Panther Camp turned out to be a never-to-be-forgotten experience for the approximately 700 students and teachers who spent the last part of the 2012-13 school year there.
"There's only 700 people that did this, all the kids and the staff, we have something in common, a link forever," Principal Steve Sanders said.
After a Tuesday, April 30, fire displaced the students and staff of St. Croix Central Elementary, the school district scrambled to find an alternative school location so students could get back to classes as soon as possible. SCC was able to rent Rolling Ridges Girl Scout Camp near Hudson and turn it into "Panther Camp" by Monday, May 6.
"We did the impossible setting this thing up in five days," Sanders said.
Overall, Sanders said, Panther Camp went very well, between the hard work of the teachers, community support, and a certain amount of serendipity.
"Everything that could have...gone wrong, went well for us," Sanders said. "Weather, busing, people being understanding with us, the donations and the volunteering. It's amazing to me."
Before students started at Panther Camp, he and the staff did not know what to expect, Sander said.
Long-term kindergarten substitute teacher Judy Larson said the camp was a definite success.
"I think it was successful beyond our imagination," Larson said. "And the kids had an absolute blast."
In fact, 9-year-old Anna Van Rossum, who just finished third grade at Panther Camp, said she had so much fun at Panther Camp, she doesn't want to go back to regular school in the fall.
"I wish they could just take this whole camp and move it, and make that the regular school," Van Rossum said, "except without the ticks."
The ticks were one of the things the students and teachers had to get used to at Panther Camp. The teachers made a special effort to help the kids learn about ticks and to make finding ticks less scary.
By the end of Panther Camp, Larson said, the kindergarteners were able to determine the gender of the ticks they found.
"It was almost a privilege to be able to say 'I have a girl' or 'I have a boy,'" Larson said.
Van Rossum's third-grade class and two other third grade classes kept a "tick tape" on the wall where students would stick the ticks they caught crawling on them.
Van Rossum and her friend Sydney Burgess, who also finished third grade at Panther Camp, said there were more than 100 ticks on their "tick tape" by the last day of school.
While Burgess said her memories of Panther Camp will never be forgotten, she said she did have some less positive memories.
"We aren't really meant to be here," Burgess said, "But everything happens for a reason."
Burgess said she hopes the SCC staff will continue to talk with the students who were worried after the fire.
"The teachers will always make you feel comfortable about it," Burgess said.
Overall, she said her experience as Panther Camp was positive, and full of special moments shared with her classmates and teachers.
Burgess will be in Tom Magee's fourth grade class next fall. She and the other SCC Elementary students will start the year in the St. Croix Central Elementary School building, which should be ready for students by the first day of school, Sept. 3, according to SCC District Administrator David Bradley.
Bradley said the school's entryway is being reconstructed to make it more secure. The new design will include a new set of interior doors that will be locked during the school day, so that visitors will have no choice but to go through the office in order to enter the school.
Bradley said the office area may not be fully ready by the time school begins.
The school's main offices and library need a great deal of work. The classrooms that were closest to the fire also suffered a great deal of smoke damage.
Bradley said the school took advantage of the opportunity presented by the reconstruction to have all remaining asbestos removed from the building. Another "silver lining," Bradley said, is the fact the energy improvements the school had planned for the summer have been started earlier than originally planned.
When school starts next fall, Bradley said the school building will also have a renovated library, a new computer room in the library, a new ceiling, new lights, new carpets and new paint.
"It's going to feel and look like a brand new building," Bradley said. "I think people will be really pleased and impressed with the new look and feel of the building."