By SHANNON WATKINS
During the second part of the instructional focus segment at Thursday night’s Pulaski County School Board meeting, Gina Miano, a Pulaski County High School counselor, gave a presentation on Camp Cougar.
Described at the meeting by School Superintendant Dr. Tom Brewster as a “hidden gem,” Camp Cougar is a summer P.E. program for rising freshman and sophomores at PCHS. The program, which is $250 per student, covers their P.E. requirements for the following school year and, said Miano, “this opens up an elective class for them” which is important for students pursuing things like band, art and foreign languages, among other electives. Rising freshmen get a tour of PCHS to familiarize them with their new academic home, and rising sophomores get classroom drivers education and education about safety and drunk driving from state policemen.
“It’s a nontraditional approach to PE 9 and PE 10,” said Miano. “We began after graduation, we go six days a week, a minimum of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and this includes Saturdays. We go for three straight weeks. Yes, parents love us. We wear out their kids, we keep them safe, we give them great experiences, and in the evenings, they just crash and come back the next morning.” Camp Cougar offers breakfast and lunch to all students and staff, said Miano.
As for the cost, Miano said, “Financial assistance is always available. Even when it’s not available? Financial assistance is always available. No student would not be able to participate in Camp Cougar due to finances. This year alone we didn’t have a financial fund, it had run dry.” She went on to reveal, “And a businessman who saw our eighth-grade presentation from Pulaski, he didn’t even have any kids in the system, and he didn’t do Camp Cougar. But he called up and offered $1,000 with no strings. He said, ‘Just come pick it up.’ He didn’t want any attention, nothing. He didn’t want his name out. But we took that and spread it over eight different families to provide assistance for Camp Cougar. I just think that’s really special. I was able to tell those families there would be no problem with money. It was an incredible experience. He suggested I come back next year. I think that I will.”
This year, according to Miano, Camp Cougar hosted 77 rising ninth graders, which is the highest number of incoming freshman ever, and 55 rising 10th graders.
What sets Camp Cougar apart from regular semester PE classes, according to Miano, is the range of activities that aren’t available any other time. Among the activities, Miano listed white water rafting, whitewater canoeing, hiking the Cascades and Foster Falls, a trip to Camp Powhatan that includes initiative games, rappelling and rock wall climbing, trips to Claytor Lake for sailboating, skiing, canoeing and snorkeling, volleyball, swimming, trips toRandolph Park—“you’d be amazed how many kids have never had that experience,” said Miano—Zumba, salsa, aerobic classes, “and the number one activity, which is caving,” added Miano. “They go in clean as a whistle, and they come out with mud head to toe. Again, the parents love us during that part.”
Some days also included classes on bullying, domestic violence, relationship violence, environmental health and first aid, with experts from local agencies, according to Miano.
Another facet of Camp Cougar is that all students’ needs are covered. Miano said that the camp works with nurses and special education “so all students needs would be met and no one would not be able to participate. We have had the hearing impaired, vision impaired, austistics, diabetics, (kids with) severe allergies, students with prosthetics, and various learning needs. And they have all found wonderful success with this program.” Miano also praised the camp’s staff. “We’re all getting older, but there’s been very little turnover. Most of them have been there for 10 years.”
School Board Chairman Mike Barbour asked, “Hasn’t there traditionally been a waiting list?”
“Yes,” said Miano.
“How long was the waiting list this year?” asked Barbour.
“We took every student,” said Miano, who did point out that some trips limited the number who could participate in individual events, but the camp provided extra alternative activities.
“I think one of the things Camp Cougar points out is the tremendous amount and diversity and outdoor activities that we have in Pulaski County and the New River Valley,” said board member Joe Guthrie. “And it certainly is great that it allows out students to do those activities that you couldn’t do in a regular gym class.”
He continued, “Are there other school districts that are doing this? Because I’ve talked with high school teachers from around this area, a lot of them I’ll mention Camp Cougar and they’re kind of stunned and amazed. They’ve never heard of it, they think it’s a great idea, and they want to know more about it.”
“I’ve been contacted I would say over the last 10 years by about 10 different school systems that try to replicate this program,” said Miano. “I hear about it a lot from our teachers who go to other schools who talk about it. And I always say, ‘I’m going to send you all the information, look at it, call me and we’ll have a meeting.’ Inevitably—it’s complex and it’s massive when you look at it—the relationships they would have to build, they just don’t pursue it. But they could. It’s an amazing thing. I am not aware of any other school in the state of Virginia that is running a summer school program like this.” She pointed out that a number of Radford students usually apply.
Guthrie said, “It is very much a gem that we have here, and if we can let other counties know about it, other districts, that’d be great. You sent a ninth-grader home to my house this year after caving, completely covered in mud, and yet it was wonderful.”