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Engaging Camp Staff in Continuous Program Improvement

Laurie P. Browne, Monya Jameson, M. Deborah Bialeschki


Executive Summary: Continuous program improvement, or the systematic process of gathering assessment information to inform programmatic changes, is a practice that has important implications for human resource management at camps and other youth recreation programs. The process of gathering information from campers (i.e., their perceptions of camp programs, their growth at camp) and using that information to make program improvements over time has many potential benefits for camps, including the ways it is known to foster positive staff-related outcomes (Smith, Akiva, Sugar, Lo, Frank, Peck, Cortina, & Devaney, 2012). In 2005, the American Camp Association, in partnership with Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI), initiated a Program Improvement Project (PIP) with 23 day and resident camps in order to examine the effects of continuous program improvement within various camp contexts. Findings from that study indicated that camps that engaged staff in designing program improvement plans saw significant improvement in the supports and opportunities for positive youth development after one year. Little is known about if and how these camps continue to implement their program improvement plans today. Research in after-school programs suggests many potential challenges with sustaining continuous program improvement over time, including frontline and administrative staff turnover and buy in. Given these challenges, follow-up work is necessary in order to better understand how staff-related factors support or impede continuous program improvement over time. The purpose of the current follow-up study was to explore the nature of continuous program improvement among the 23 original PIP camps. Fourteen camps responded to an initial survey that asked if they implement their PIP plan more than, about the same, or less than in 2005. From these results we invited four camps, one “high implementation,†two “moderate implementation†and one “low implementation,†to participate in in-depth interviews. Several themes emerged related to affordances and barriers to continuous program improvement. Affordances, which were staff-related processes that supported continuous program improvement since 2005, included an explicit focus on youth development outcomes, staff buy in, and using data for accountability. Barriers, factors that impeded continuous program improvement, included ill defined outcomes and administrative turnover. These findings are consistent with much of the research on continuous program improvement in the afterschool setting (e.g., Smith et al., 2012), yet this study provides new insight into ways effective human resource management might promote continuous program improvement at camps. Of particular interest is the barrier related to administrative turnover. Findings from this study suggest that administrators played a significant role in engaging frontline staff in continuous program improvement and the camps that experienced administrative turnover had a difficult time maintaining or growing their systems of program improvement over time. Camps and other youth programs should consider ways to foster continuity across administrative personnel, including creating career ladders to grow frontline staff to the administrative level and by intentionally supporting administrators' health and well-being.


camp administration; camp staff; continuous program improvement; youth program quality

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