Summer is the perfect time to challenge high school students with new risks and adventures - but does a coed summer program for teenagers lead to exploits that aren't exactly the sort parents have in mind?
Several summer program leaders we talked with say that fears about mixing the sexes on overnight summer programs are often unfounded. The key, they say, is clear communication at all levels: between parent and student; between parent and program; and between program and student.
Christina Reiff is director of programs at the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colo.
The institute, which claims to be “where nature and minds meet" has two programs for high-schoolers: HMI Semester, primarily for high school juniors, and HMI Summer Term, for students who have completed at least ninth grade. Both combine academic pursuits with rugged backcountry activities such as backpacking and skiing.
“Anytime you work with teenagers, (risky behavior) is the reality of the age group,” Reiff says. High school students, she says, are simply wired for it. But programs can capitalize on that and channel risk-taking in an appropriate direction.
“A lot of risky behavior by teenagers starts in the brain,” she says. So a perceived risk of adventure – under controlled conditions – can help fulfill that need to push boundaries.
HMI clearly articulates rules before students arrive, Reiff says. That is followed by a powwow on the first day of camp.
“We hold a big community meeting, where we talk about rules in detail so it’s totally clear,” she says. “For example, if students drink alcohol, they go home.” That is followed with a meeting that features students brainstorming ways to support each other.
Her advice to parents: Check the level of supervision offered by prospective summer programs, and have a clear, candid conversation with your child about expectations and consequences.
Brian Boecherer is executive director of the University of Connecticut’s Office of Early College Programs, which includes the Pre-college Summer program for high school juniors and seniors. Students live on campus in Storrs, Conn., and immerse themselves in an academic subject.
The program is coed and housing is divided among all-female and all-male floors supervised by hall directors. The program is a good opportunity for students to test what college will be like, including the social aspects, Boecherer says.
One reason the program hasn’t had any problems may be that UConn requires a letter of recommendation from every applicant’s school counselor that attests to the maturity of the student to handle certain situations, Boecherer says.
“It comes down to honest conversations,” he says.
His advice to parents: Talk with your child about coed living and if he or she feels comfortable in this sort of social environment.
Programs should ultimately balance the quest for independence inherent in 16- and 17-year-olds with the guidance and support of adult leaders, says Ashley Langdon, an admissions officer at The Experiment in International Living in Brattleboro, Vt.
The summer program promotes intercultural learning through homestays, with host families providing a safe environment and upholding expectations around responsible behavior. Langdon recommends programs with a full, enriching itinerary for getting teens on the right path.
“Teenagers who are given plenty of opportunities to challenge themselves and discover the world around them will have less time to make poor choices,” she says.
Remember that your older teenager is on the cusp of adulthood. “Most of these students will be going to college in one or two years,” says Reiff. “Putting your child in a coed camp environment where there is a support system, with much more structure, and where they can navigate coed relationships, can help them make good decisions later.”
Her advice for parents: Look for a program that puts emphasis on the group process. Students are likely to make good decisions when they feel supported by, and accountable to, their peers.