By RUSSELL JONES

PITTSFORD — A program at Lothrop Elementary School, although not new, is helping fifth and sixth grade students step outside the classroom and learn group and social skills in a fun environment.

The overnight trip to Camp Betsy Cox has been a tradition for incoming fifth graders for decades.

“It’s kind of a rite-of-passage,” said Lothrop guidance counselor Jed Pauls. “Coming into the fifth grade, the students are stepping up into the older hallways and the Betsy Cox overnight is the beginning of that.”

At the camp, students learn to work together to solve challenge problems and navigate a low-ropes course. Although other schools in the district have taken day trips to the camp, the overnight trip is unique to Lothrop.

Since the district merger and the regrouping of classes to combine fifth and sixth grades, some adjustments to the trip have been necessary.

“It’s historically been a fifth grade trip, but we’re fine-tuning that now that we’re multi-age,” said school nurse, Melanie Parker, who works closely with Pauls in coordinating the groups. “It takes place every September and it’s like a kickoff to arm these students with tools that are really life skills.”

This year, the sixth grade students went to the camp the first day and took part in some puzzles and ropes activities before staying overnight in cabins. The fifth grade students came along the next day and joined in on other activities, some facilitated by the sixth grade students.

Parker has been the school nurse at Lothrop for 16 years. She came from private practice and when the previous Lothrop nurse decided to retire, Parker chose to return to the school she went to as a child.

“I had small kids at the time,” she said of her decision. “I love kids and I love the community here.”

Her work with the Betsy Cox overnight program began six years ago, around the same time that Pauls joined the school.

“I am lucky to be a part of it, as it’s not traditionally a school nurse role,” she said. “Although you could make that argument with the social/emotional work that we do.”

Pauls worked for 12 years at the Centerpoint School in Winooski, most of those years as the director.

“I came to Lothrop as a very intentional decision not to be an administrator,” Pauls said. “This is much more sustainable and much more fun.”

Although even with something as fun as an overnight slumber party, there are still problems.

“You always have a child or two that gets homesick and you spend a few minutes or a few hours sometimes helping them to stick with it and the next day there is this real excitement of having made it,” Pauls said. “Stepping out from your home, away from your parents that is a very real part of gaining independence while still being a kid.”

The lessons the kids learn at the camp are also a very real part of the education they get from Lothrop and the overnight helps them to see one another in a different light.

“Going into it, they know each other. Or at least they think they do,” said Pauls. “After completing the challenges they gain an appreciation of each other and what they can accomplish.”

This break from classroom learning into a less traditional setting is great for the students before heading into the middle school at Otter Valley Union High School, according to Pauls, while also helping the teachers gain a valuable perspective on their students.

“In my time, I’ve seen more and more academic demands being pushed earlier with increased expectations for the teachers,” he said. “Those demands squeeze out time for group and social problem-solving skills.”

“Going into the middle school, there are more expectations of the students to manage their own stuff and they become more reliant on their peers to do that,” Pauls continued. “Through the camp, they have that experience and have succeeded. There are new dynamics formed by them opening up and being vulnerable, but also achieving their goals.”

The skills the teachers use to lead the students are developed at Project Adventure, a Massachusetts-based organization that provides adventure-based learning tools. Those tools are now infused in morning staff meetings spread throughout the teaching staff at Lothrop.

The key to the lessons is providing students with what they need. Some students thrive on adversity to challenge them and drive them to succeed, while other students do not.

“Sometimes, they just need to win, a success,” Pauls said. “They just need to high five each other after completing a challenge. They’ll remember that feeling.”

The trick is to determine which students need which method. There is a lot of art to that and after all his years, Pauls said he is still learning that art every day.

“You have to be willing to fail, and we help the kids with that too. Some need more freedom in their learning experiences,” he said. “At the camp, it’s not sitting at a desk learning and that is freedom in itself.”