New Blue

Starting this fall, the Cub Scout program will change. Why? How does making it more lasting, more successful, and more fun sound?

By Marie Bartusek
Photographs by Andy Manis

Bay-Lakes Council executive board vice president Lucia Cronin works with Cub Scout Josh Garcia of Pack 3817.

Firefighter Torie Ruffin of the Mequon Fire Station in suburban Milwaukee, Wis., dresses for a blaze in a 50-pound fire suit with a 20-pound air tank strapped to his back. He is demonstrating the equipment for an audience of 10 Cub Scouts from Den 8 of Pack 3865 in Mequon. With every inch of his skin covered, Ruffin breaths through an air hose. “He sounds like Darth Vader!” shouts 7-year-old Cameron Karaba.

Except that instead of using a Star Wars lightsaber, Ruffin wields a canvas hose channeling 300 gallons of water. Removing his helmet and kneeling down, he offers each boy a turn at target practice, aiming streams of water at a wooden model home the size of a dog house with a painted plume of fire issuing from its roof. Seven-year-old Scout Sunil Dass blasts the flame with perfect aim, “Take that, fire!”

Pack 3865's Cameron Karaba battles a mock blaze with help from firefighter Torie Ruffin.

In the den’s sixth meeting of the year this November afternoon, the Cub Scouts not only awed at Ruffin, they learned what to do when caught in a house fire and had fun climbing on a fire truck. They also checked off Wolf Handbook benchmarks, including six requirements for Achievement 4. “We did a lot, but I don’t think if you asked the kids they would know we did anything different,” says Den 8’s leader Thuy Barron. “They were enthusiastic and really interactive.” But the den meeting was different.

Mequon’s Pack 3865 got a jump start on using the new Cub Scout delivery method that launches nationwide this fall. The new program organizes Cub Scout handbook guidelines into lesson plans focusing on logically linked topics. These fall into a 16-meeting timeline that allows Cub Scouts to work together on rank achievements during meetings.

“For many kids, this new approach will look a lot like what they were doing before,” says Mike Surbaugh, Scout Executive of the Greater Pittsburgh Council, who was involved in developing the program and launching its test phase in the Central Region.

Surveys found that the most successful dens were incorporating advancement into the meetings. “Kids told us that advancement was more fun than anything they were doing in their den meetings,” he says.

Rather than simply relying on families to work on these achievements at home, the new method streamlines existing meeting options into organized Scouting lesson plans. The boys then work together toward rank advancement during den meetings. That change, say organizers, acknowledges the increasing demands on working parents and the demographic rise of single-parent households.

“We encourage family involvement,” says Bob Scott, an innovation coordinator for the BSA. But group participation, “is fun for the kids, and boys who advance with their peers are more likely to stay with the program.”

In 2005, the BSA tested the redesigned Cub Scout meeting plans with 21 dens in Wisconsin’s Bay-Lakes Council. Among the findings, the collective retention rate of participating dens soared from 64 to 85 percent. These figures were confirmed when 1,117 dens, roughly 2 percent of those in the Central Region, adopted the program in 2007. In 2009, 9,980 dens used the new materials. BSA officials estimate that, when rolled out across the nation, some 350,000 boys may remain as a result. “This is the biggest thing we’ve seen in terms of keeping kids involved,” says Scott.

Bay-Lakes Council’s executive board vice president, Lucia Cronin, who heads the stock-trading operations of an investment firm, inadvertently began the Cub Scouts redesign when she picked up the Wolf Handbook in 1995, her first of 10 years as a den leader in Mequon. After reading it, she sorted out the achievement steps, paired them with related electives, and plotted her meetings for the year. Topics that were similar—safety lessons such as knowing who to call in case of an emergency—were combined into the same meeting, and active events that might involve sports, for example, were inserted into meetings with quiet activities to provide balance.

“All I did was maximize efficiency,” explains Cronin. “I did it in such a way that at every pack meeting, every month, each Cub Scout would receive something, a tangible sign of his achievement.”

Leading the boys’ work on advancement during meetings, she found den participation and enthusiasm increased. “The boys loved receiving tangible recognition at every pack meeting, like badges and awards, and the parents were proud.” Proud parents also attended more pack events where the den leader had opportunities to recruit them to help out with volunteer needs.

More helpful parents and an annual lesson plan made her a happier den leader. The changes made volunteers’ jobs easier by relieving them of planning each week’s activities. Throughout the year, the pilot Cub Scout program plots 16 den meetings—twice-a-month get-togethers not including pack meetings and activities—that function as lesson plans. Each outline identifies: achievement aims, measuring “full” or “partial” progress toward them; materials required; pre-meeting preparation; meeting steps from flag-raising to flag-lowering; and how to get ready for the next meeting.

After five years of development, research, and testing, the new Cub Scout guidelines are ready for a national rollout. Rank advancement is based on activities laid out for the entire school year, a clearly signposted path that discourages alterations in the curriculum. “For the new den leader, this will dramatically increase confidence as it gives them a plan to execute,” predicts the BSA’s Scott. “It’s a place to start.”

Though the delivery method is new, the program remains the same, says Mike Surbaugh. “Cub Scouting forges character development. That core program hasn’t changed at all. We now have a way to more clearly define and show parents how they can be engaged and make a value difference to their children.”

Cronin, whose three sons achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, praises the existing handbooks and views the new program as a matter of delivery. “The handbook contents were brilliantly conceived to develop leadership and other character competencies,” she says. “By completing the rank achievements and many of the electives, a boy would develop skills and values that are essential to becoming the kind of adult I hoped he would become. None of that has changed.”

Den 2 leader Russell White, of Pack 3817 in Grafton, Wis., agrees. He has been using the new materials for the past year. “The program puts electives together so that there’s reinforcement and learning. Every time you go to point B you go back to point A and say, ‘I remember that.’ It’s focused on education and accomplishment.’”

In his newly refinished basement, White, assistant den leader Angela Harvey, and a dozen boys gather around an expansive worktable one evening in early November. They’re making a gift (Wolf Handbook Elective 9b) and learning the song “America” (Elective 11a). Photos of the boys in uniform are central to the gift, to be inserted in wooden frames they are painting tonight. The elective was paced to have the boys’ gifts ready in time for the December holidays.

“The new meeting plans seem to be more structured but with all of the fun included,” says assistant Cubmaster Keith Valerius. His son William is a Den 2 member.

Den leader White insists that, despite his success with the new materials, he’s not a by-the-book guy. The Eagle Scout admits he was more inclined to spend time with his Cub Scouts exploring the woods, which forced the group to scramble to meet handbook goals before the blue and gold dinner in February. Now he has a playbook. “The meeting plans keep me busy” he says, “but I don’t have to plan them.”

The Cub Scouts have done their own parts to keep White busy. In the past year his den has grown from 10 to 16 boys.

“This meeting is controlled and productive, and Mr. White is so much fun the kids love it,” offers Debbie Dlugopolski, mother of Cub Scout Sean Dlugopolski, as the children listen to Woody Guthrie singing “America” to learn the words.

Brian Garcia’s 7-year-old son, Josh, recently joined the group after hearing about it from classmates. “He’s really excited, and he’s learning so much, so fast,” says the father, ticking off the Bobcat requirements Josh mastered recently. “There’s a sense of community here, and it’s something that will stick with him forever.”

Marie Bartusek has contributed articles to many national publications such as Family Circle and Health.

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