Inside Baltimore's Westside Skill Center, a student can be a mechanic, a baker, a computer repair technician, a nurse, a manicurist, and a child care provider -- all in a few weeks.
At the Career Technology Summer Camp, Baltimore school students take courses in hopes of answering the age-old question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
The camp, which is sponsored by the Office of Career and Technology Education of Baltimore public schools, caters to seventh- and eighth-graders who take courses for five weeks during the summer on everything from automotive repair to wood shop. About 425 students enrolled to take the free classes this summer.
Camp Director Carolyn Holmes said the camp maintains the spirit of summer fun while giving students hands-on training and a sense of accomplishment.
"The way to build self-esteem is to give them new, recognizable skills," Mrs. Holmes said. "When a student sets out to achieve something and then achieves it, they feel great."
That means, Mrs. Holmes said, encouraging boys to take courses they may not ordinarily seek out -- such as sewing and nursing -- while girls are taught they can excel at skills such as printing and shop.
"Here, we don't talk about limitations," Mrs. Holmes said. "We only talk about what the students can do."
The camp is the only one of its kind in Baltimore, and for the past six years, students have attended from all over the city to try their hand at baking, cosmetology, child care, computer repair, data entry, carpentry and other skills. The students take two classes a day until they have completed six eight-day courses. The day starts at 8:30 a.m. and runs until 2 p.m., with half of the day devoted to classes and the rest for recreational activities.
Mrs. Holmes said slashed funds have forced her to shorten the number of weeks the camp stays open from six to five. According to Bernard F. Barnes, director of the Office of Career and Technology Education, funding for the camp was cut from $128,000 last year to $68,000 this year.
The camp also has adjusted by cutting the day's activities by one hour, scraping a transportation "scholarship" program that paid students' bus fare and soliciting donations of supplies, Mrs. Holmes said.
Despite the obvious resemblance to a regular school day, many of the students said the only drawback to the camp was having to be there so early.
"Getting up in the morning is the hardest thing," groaned N-kenge Jackson, 13, an eighth-grader at Booker T. Washington Middle School. "But we get to learn a lot, and we have fun."
So much fun, Mrs. Holmes said, that both students and teachers are clamoring to be a part of the program. Word has even spread to parents whose children come home singing the praises of the camp, she said.
"I look up sometimes, and I have parents trying to sit in on the classes," Mrs. Holmes said, laughing.
Cosmetology is one of the most popular courses offered, Mrs. Holmes said. On the last day of a course cycle, a group of young girls prepared "portfolios" of nail designs they had created.
"Isn't this beautiful?" cosmetology instructor Grace Richardson said as one student shyly displayed a piece of cardboard with glued fake nails decorated with her intricate designs.
The camp helps high school guidance counselors pinpoint a student's interests and effectively plan a curriculum to steer that student to his or her chosen profession. At the end of the sessions, students fill out assessment sheets that are then forwarded to their schools.
Bertha McCloud, who teaches computer literacy and dance at the camp, said the camp gives students who are entering vocational high schools an advantage by letting them sample a career path.
"I've seen students come into a vocational program thinking they want to get into one thing and then change their mind," said Ms. McCloud, who has taught at Merganthaler Vocational Technical High School for 18 years. "Then it takes almost all year to get them out of that program and into the one they want to be in.
"This way, they come out with some experience, knowing what they want to do," Ms. McCloud said.
Officials at the Office of Career and Technology Education said no data is collected on whether students who attend the camp are more successful in their vocational careers than those who do not.
Campers said they believed the experience would not only enhance their high school career but also their professional career. Jawan Yancey, 13, aspires to be a computer technician and said the lessons he has learned at camp will help make him a more marketable employee.
"One day I am going to want to get a job, and I will already have some experience," he said.
Jawan's friend, Samuel Matthews, 12, said he also gained a bit of life experience from the camp's child care class. Students in the class care for a plastic foam egg that represents a baby.
"You know what I learned about babies?" Samuel asked. "Never to have one."