CLARKSBURG — Irena Alexander may not have intended to do so, but she inspired a song this week.
The 4-year-old asked music teacher Chris Caproni, who is working this summer at Clarksburg Elementary School’s camp, for a song about a wolf.
Caproni did his homework. He listened to 10 songs about wolves. None suited his purpose. So he wrote one and introduced it to Alexander and her cohort of pre-kindergartners Tuesday in a world premiere that climaxed in a singalong.
“Irena the Wolf,” was written in a haunting minor mode. Caproni played chords on an electric keyboard in accompaniment as he sang. He encouraged the children to howl after each line: “I’m a baby wolf. I’m a baby wolf. How great it is to be a wolf puppy. Oh I’m a baby wolf. My daddy feeds me meat. My mom takes care of me. How great it is to be a baby wolf. I’m a baby wolf.”
Irena and her peers howled enthusiastically.
Caproni credits a second grader at the camp, who also takes piano lessons from him, for recruiting him to take a job at the program.
“I’ve been having a great time,” said the Drury High School band director. “We’ve been doing songs about wolves and chocolate mousse and owls, and every day we listen to a piece of music. And every day we try to learn a new piece of music.”
The summer program at Clarksburg Elementary School was designed to fulfill the Northern Berkshire School Union‘s obligation to provide special education to students with individualized educational plans. In summers prior to the opening of the camp, those students would have been dropped off for appointments and picked up typically a half-hour later.
The camp also serves a broader population, with 125 to 140 students attending each of the five weeks it is offered.
Mornings are academic with music, drumming, visits next door to the Clarksburg Public Library thrown into the mix. Afternoons are devoted to field trips and to things like magic shows, visits to JStar in North Adams for gymnastics classes or dance classes on campus.
Jordan Rennell, summer program director for the Northern Berkshire School Union, started the program in 2018 with help and supervision from Tara Barnes, assistant superintendent. That year the program ended in the red and Rennell didn’t take part of her pay in order to meet payroll.
Since 2021, the program has been focusing on addressing deficits created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That was also the first year the progam received a grant through United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley’s Summer Step Up initiative. As of today, the program has received more than $500,000. This summer it received $135,000.
The summer program is offered weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to children living in the towns of Savoy, Clarksburg and Florida or who attend the Northern Berkshire School Union’s schools in those towns.
Full camp tuition is $30 per day or $150 per week, but many of the children attending qualify for partial scholarship or attend for free based on family income. Free breakfast and lunch are offered to all campers through reimbursement in the Summer Eats program and with a $2,500 grant from Project Bread.
“I think that we’ve been adrift for a long time during the pandemic where we’ve been in siloes and we’ve been alone and we’ve been not going out,” Barnes said. “So I think that just having this be the hub for families and students and all these partners to come together is addressing it.”
“There’s no real magic to it,” she said, “except that [Rennell has] created the space that is magical in a way to kind of put us back together.”
The Rennie Center and United Way spotlighted the Clarksburg program as a positive example.
“With funding through SSUP, the School Union was able to create a district-operated ‘summer camp’ based at a school site that avoided the stigma of ‘summer school,’” the document reads. “Their model found success by utilizing a hands-on approach to academic instruction, often involving activity stations and participatory small-group learning — an approach that would not have been possible without the extra staff brought on board using SSUP funds.”
In the Clarksburg Public Library, librarian Dan Matz offers story time and then there’s time to pick out books to borrow and do other activities, like coloring.
While there, a group of boys asked Mason Stred, 14, to hunt for information about Yellowstone National Park after one of them pulled a book out about volcanoes.
Stred, who is entering ninth grade at McCann Technical School just graduated from Clarksburg Elementary School.
“I like working with kids,” Stred said, who is working his first summer job at the camp. “And a lot of people say I’m good with them so I feel like getting paid to do something I like just seemed like a good option.”
He’s one of 22 teens the program hired to help out this summer. Just like campers can come for a week at a time, the teens don’t have to work all five weeks, but Stred is.
“Some of them are energetic,” Stred said of the campers. “But they’re all good.”
While some of the campers said they enjoyed field trips to Mauser’s Pond, Fish Pond or Grafton Lake best, many ranked music first. Still others picked math and drumming as favorites.
Robbie Ferris, 6, of Savoy, had a different answer: “I like being with my friends here.”