LBUSD planning return of beloved Camp Hi Hill at new location

Break out the memory sticks and keep an eye out for the red bat—Camp Hi Hill is coming back.

More than a decade after the Long Beach Unified School District was forced to close its beloved outdoor school, the district is close to bringing back a similar program at a new location, with a target of doing so for the 2023-24 school year.

Plans are in the works for the district to bring back its week-long outdoor learning expedition for fifth graders next school year, with the location changed to the YMCA’s Camp Oakes near Big Bear, off State Route 38.

“We haven’t landed on a name, but I think it should be Camp Hi Hill at Oakes,” said Brian Moskovitz, LBUSD’s assistant superintendent over elementary schools. He said he anticipates a formal contract coming before the LBUSD’s Board of Education in January to revive the program at the new location.

“If you talk to anyone who grew up in Long Beach, it’s an amazing experience that people remember forever,” said Moskovitz.

“I’m so excited that this has been in the works,” said LBUSD boardmember Diana Craighead. “I know that when we sent students into the mountains, a lot of the time that was the first experience for those students to be away from home, and to be in a different area like the mountains. It’s an incredible opportunity, and a treasured memory.”

Whatever happened to Camp Hi Hill?

Camp Hi Hill Outdoor School opened in 1948, in the Angeles Crest north of Mt. Wilson. For six decades it was a beloved Long Beach tradition: In the final year of elementary school, students from across the district would pack their things, hop on a yellow school bus, and spend a week in the mountains with their classmates, sleeping in cabins and learning about science, nature and the outdoors under the stars.

Stories about beloved camp traditions and songs have been a cultural touchstone in Long Beach ever since—regardless of where in the city someone grew up, how much money they had, or what their background was, almost all Long Beach kids got to experience Camp Hi Hill. Many hung onto their “memory sticks” signed by other campers to this day and can recite which cabin they stayed in on their trip. There are multiple social media sites dedicated to Hi Hill memories.

In 2008, the twin forces of budget cuts and wildfire concerns closed the Hi Hill Outdoor School. In 2009, the Station Fire burned much of the forest around the camp, yet left Hi Hill itself unscathed. Still, concerns remained, and after one year of relocating the program to the YMCA’s Camp Oakes, it was shuttered in 2009, ending 61 years of a much-loved tradition in Long Beach.

Moskovitz said that there was a genuine feeling of heartbreak among the district’s leadership at closing Hi Hill. Much of that leadership team are LBUSD alums themselves, with their own fond memories of the week away. Moskovitz has spent much of the last 13 years as one of the voices within the district who’s tried to look for opportunities to bring it back.

“I personally have been advocating behind the scenes for the return of Hi Hill,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily think it would be a reality, but every year I’d kind of surface it.”

Planning to bring back a beloved tradition

The first piece of the puzzle came with the additional “Expanded Learning Opportunities” program funds given to school districts in California as part of the government’s COVID-19 response.

“There’s been conversations for 15 years, but it wasn’t really until the desire to bring it back met with the ELO additional funding that it became feasible,” said Moskovitz.

The charge of ELO funding is to increase learning opportunities outside the traditional school day, with an additional emphasis on social emotional learning. While some of those concepts might seem new and trendy, they also happen to align perfectly with the Hi Hill tradition in the LBUSD that dates back to the 1940s.

With the funding in place, the LBUSD team began looking at Hi Hill with the possibility of re-opening it—but they quickly realized that the original site would not work. There’s the issue of the buildings having sat unused for more than a decade, which is a big hurdle, but the real stumbling block is fire safety.

Hi Hill only has one road in and out—under modern state fire regulations passed because of increased wildfires in California, that would have to change.

“We would be required to upgrade the roads,” said Moskovitz. “We’d have to fund a new road in and out—and even so, the camp is a walk from the parking lot. If there were a fire, it would be almost impossible for transportation to get to the camp to evacuate them.”

In other words, re-opening Hi Hill Outdoor School wouldn’t just require upgrading some cabins. It would also require two 1-mile roads being constructed in the mountains.

Because the LBUSD already has a partnership with the YMCA of Greater Long Beach, Camp Oakes became the next site to look at. Oakes has a very similar layout and already has programs with school districts to bring students there.

“Their service area is Long Beach, so they had a lot of interest in making that available to us,” said Moskovitz.

What’s next for Hi Hill and the LBUSD?

Contracts to present to the LBUSD board have not been finalized yet, but planning is well underway, and it’s likely that the board will have something to vote on in early 2023. The LBUSD will require about 80% of the available weeks at Camp Oakes, making it a big partnership between the district and the LB YMCA.

Once an agreement is signed, a curriculum will be developed, with input from some current fourth graders and families who will be among the first to go next year. The district team, which has already toured Oakes, will go up again in the spring. Moskovitz was part of the team that went up earlier in 2022.

“We took a tour of the facility, and surprising to me—not surprising to the folks at Camp Oakes—a lot of the programming they run is very similar to what was run at Camp Hi Hill,” he said. “It’s a model that’s been developed over the last 50 years, a lot of the same songs and routines and daily structures, sleeping arrangements, things that are very familiar to what we had at Hi Hill.”

The plan with the ELO funding will be that the trips will be fully funded next year and for the foreseeable future, with no cost to campers. That means beginning next school year, Long Beach fifth graders across the city will once again have the opportunity to go out into nature for a week as part of a public school program.

“I think after the last two challenging years, our students having opportunities to experience nature and…disconnect from the grind here (is great),” said LBUSD boardmember Juan Benitez. “I think it’s wonderful.”

For Moskovitz and the rest of the LBUSD team, that experience was the reason it was worth the hard work to try and revive the program.

“Students who don’t have the opportunities to be in the mountains or snow get that chance to connect with nature,” he said. “To spend a week there, that effect is profound. And as we continue to develop social emotional learning, the value in helping students connect with each other, too. It’s so much more powerful when you can get them away from their environment and day-to-day challenges and just connect in a place that’s peaceful and beautiful.”

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