Every morning St. Croix Central Elementary students get off the buses and gather around the flagpole, standing in a field near the third and fourth grade cabins. All of the more than 600 students recite the Pledge of Allegiance together. Then, the students separate, kindergarten through second grade students go to the large main building that also houses the school's offices, and third and fourth grade students go to two smaller cabins very close to the flagpole.
The elementary students are now attending "Panther Camp" located at Rolling Ridges Girl Scout Camp (965 Alexander Rd., Hudson), which the school district is leasing from Girl Scouts River Valleys. The unconventional school setting was made necessary after an April 30 fire closed the elementary school building closed the fire for the remainder of the year.
Fourth grade teacher Jackie Newell said recited the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of "Panther Camp" has been her favorite experience so far.
"I don't think I'll ever forget how I felt then," Newell said, "pretty emotional but thankful that we were all together and that the whole school wasn't split up."
Since the first minute of the first day on May 6, St. Croix Central staff has been working hard to make school fun for the elementary students by cultivating a camp-like atmosphere.
The staff and students alike have "Panther Camp" T-Shirts emblazoned with the "Panther Camp" logo.
And the staff has been trying to incorporate other camplike activities into the students' days as well, Newell said. The fourth-graders have made sit-upons (small pads to put on the ground and sit on to protect clothing from dirt, etc.), gone on scavenger hunts and done a weaving activity.
"It's been fun doing our camp activities, incorporating the arts and crafts in too, and making it more like a camp feeling," Newell said. "But then also tying it into math or reading...it's pulling it all together in a nice way, actually."
Newell shares the top floor of the fourth grade cabin with fellow fourth grade teacher Tom Magee, Newell said she and Magee have been doing a lot of team teaching as their classroom space is not divided, as students' attention would be if the teachers were both talking at once.
Newell said she and Magee also try to stick to a normal daily structure, doing reading and writing in camp journals in the morning, followed by a mid-morning snack and recess time, then science and social studies in the afternoon.
Third grade teachers Ann DiSalvo and Guy Victor have also been working hard to incorporate a camp atmosphere into their students' days.
Victor, who used to be a camp counselor for the YMCA, learned a dancing game he plays with the third grade students at snack time.
"We try to do something every day--something different," Victor said. "We do a craft or we do a scavenger hunt out in nature."
Of course, students are also learning regular school subjects, DiSalvo said, such as fractions.
The third-graders have to walk to the main building for lunch and walk to the activity field for recess, and walk back to their cabin. And the classes take nature hikes and spend as much time outside as possible.
"It's good for them, getting a lot of exercise," Victor said, "but it's exhausting."
Students get 25 minutes for lunch and 25 minutes for recess every day. Lunch is usually a "paper bag" lunch eaten while sitting on blankets on the ground, or benches or tables under canopy tents in the grassy yard behind the main building. Recess is held in the athletic field, down a path from the lunch area, where students participate in organized games like spud and kickball.
The students are adapting well to their new situation, Victor said.
Principal Steve Sanders said the same.
"They adapt much easier than adults," Sanders said.
He said the teachers have had to be a bit creative trying to find instructional materials to use as their usual instructional material is back in their classrooms.
"The teachers have done absolutely a great job of getting materials together without having access to their rooms," Sanders said.
He said field trips that were scheduled are going on as planned, starting the week of May 13, with the second-graders visiting American Heritage Care Center in Hammond and the fourth-graders visiting Carson Park in Eau Claire.
The staff members have been working together to prepare for classes each day. Victor said the teachers have been working very closely at "Panther Camp."
"It's pretty fun for me because back in school, we're always alone teaching," Victor said. "But now, we're always close together, so I've enjoyed that."
While students and staff alike are having fun at "Panther Camp," Sanders said St. Croix Central Elementary School's building is not forgotten.
"You think about that school when you go by it every day," Sanders said. "I could go the other way but my routine is to drive out of Hammond and go up TT and go past the school."
Meanwhile, Newell said, SCC teachers are trying to give the students positive memories of their time at "Panther Camp."
"It all came about in a tragic way," Newell said, "but they'll always remember the year they got to go to camp for 23 days."