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January/February 2011

Field trips: Tradition in jeopardy
by Ginger Wheeler

Ginger Wheeler is a freelance writer from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, whose work has appeared regularly in The Illinois School Board Journal.

The school field trip: something fun and different, exciting and exhausting, a break from the school day grind. But the field trip has ramifications far beyond just getting the kids out of school for the day.

For students, the field trip is to the classroom what the big game is to athletes. For museums and other attractions, the field trip is a way to cultivate future fans who might otherwise never have visited.

For teachers, the field trip is a way to provide hands-on learning and/or a reward for long hours in the classroom. The field trip is an event that most people would agree is a memorable experience for students, teachers, administrators and parents alike. But field trips are in jeopardy because of budget cutbacks and concentration on reading and math.

Where to go

Field trips vary from school to school and district to district. In Illinois, it is common for each teacher, with its administration, to make individual decisions about the destination and the reasons for these group student excursions. Most teachers would agree that field trips should be closely tied to curriculum and learning and should be age appropriate.

Kindergarten through second graders may visit a local historical park to see first hand how people lived in previous generations. Fifth graders may experience an outdoor education overnight. Eighth graders may make the ubiquitous trip to Springfield to see the Lincoln sites and learn about state government.

Kevin Rutter, who teaches economics and coaches the debate team at Chicago’s Carl Schurz High School, was Illinois’ 2009 teacher of the year. The honor was bestowed partly because of the creative field trips he organized to the Federal Reserve Bank and other locations in Chicago’s financial district. Rutter said field trips are a tremendously valuable learning experience for his students, 90 percent of whom live below the poverty level.

“Kids learn differently depending on their learning style. Sometimes during the course of a long school year, you become the Charlie Brown teacher, ‘wah, wah, wah,’” he said. “To have another person reinforce what you’re saying, to expose students to other adults saying the same thing, helps to reinforce the lessons. You never know when or how the message sinks in.”

Many of Rutter’s students have applied for and won internships after their field trips. “The field trips I’ve gone on have been very helpful because they help with networking and connecting to the real world,” said Carl Schurz senior Osdaldo Serrano, 17. “They are preparing us for real corporate America.”

Serrano plans to attend college and major in business and accounting. His visits to the Federal Reserve and AT&T headquarters in Chicago taught him about the many jobs available to students in those fields. He also learned about résumé building.

 “I think field trips are so important,” said Diana Gonzalez, 16, another Schurz student. “They’re not just an excuse to get out of school. They have to do with what we’re learning in school. It’s hands-on learning.”

Gonzalez was able to job shadow in the public relations department of a Chicago company and now has plans to attend college to become a journalist. “I learned that the role of the Federal Reserve is the bankers’ bank,” she said. “We learned about monetary policy, interest rates and money supply. Before this I hadn’t been there.”

Real life examples

Indeed, according to David Becker, president of the Illinois Association of Museums and director of learning services at the Brookfield Zoo, field trips provide experiences many children will never get otherwise. Most Illinois museums, which include zoos and historic sites, have an educational component to their mission, he said, adding, “We offer students the opportunity to see the real life examples of things they would just normally see in pictures.”

Sheldon Schafer, vice president of education for Lakeview Children’s Museum in Peoria, said he works closely with teachers in Peoria SD 150 and neighboring communities to closely align museum programs to support curriculum that furthers state educational goals, state learning standards and ISAT test preparation programs.

As an example, Lakeview coordinated a program for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Peoria’s Harrison Primary School. At Harrison, 92 percent of the students are minorities and 89 percent live below the poverty level.

“Each child came to the museum 12 times. It was part of the curriculum to integrate arts into the core curriculum subjects,” Schafer said. “We saw an incredible change in the students. We could certainly see the demeanor, tone and interest of the students change over the course of the year.

“These kids would not have been here if not for this field trip. Some students haven’t even been out of their neighborhoods,” he added.

Additionally Lakeview owns and maintains a planetarium exhibit, which many central Illinois schools, including some colleges and universities, incorporate into their astronomy curriculum. “We have a whole series of labs that represent a shared cost across all schools,” Schafer said. “Operating a planetarium is a sizeable expense, of about $1 million, although that is less than the cost of many chemistry labs.”

Financial sacrifices

Unfortunately, some districts are sacrificing field trips as money becomes tight due to the recession and Illinois’ financial woes. Quincy Public Schools put a moratorium on field trips for the 2010-2011 school year in order to save $119,000 in transportation costs, which represents just a small fraction of the $1.2 million the state promised but has not paid the district from last year.

QPS students will miss out on a variety of field trips across the K-12 district, including trips to local events, museums, manufacturing plants, and other businesses (including a dentist), and a science center. Also on the chopping block are trips to St. Louis, Springfield and the Lincoln sites, and the Mark Twain sites in Hannibal, Missouri, which represents a relatively short trip across the Mississippi River.  

Lonny Lemon, Quincy superintendent, said parent-teacher organizations are trying to raise funds to fill the gaps, and the district hasn’t yet cancelled their spring trips to Springfield, just in case some state money comes through. “Once you cancel, you go to the bottom of the list and it’s hard to get back in (to the Springfield sites),” Lemon said.

 “Field trips are one facet of a child’s education,” he said. “We’re all being forced to make hard choices. The classroom instructor is the most important thing in front of students and our 28-member administrative team agreed that field trips were an area we could cut.”

Teachers, he said, are being encouraged to use virtual field trips as well as walking trips if possible to supplement classroom learning.

“This is a lose/lose situation, unfortunately, in the times we’re in. We’ve laid off teachers simply because the state can’t make their end. The state is balancing the budget by not paying its bills,” he said. “If the state comes around, obviously we will reinstate (field trips).”

Spending wisely

Many other school districts are restricting “reward” field trips and scrutinizing curriculum-based field trips on a case by case basis to make sure the money allocated to the trip is well spent.

Schools do not pay admission to visit Illinois’ museums and historic sites, but transportation and liability costs for field trips run the gamut.  

The museum Association’s Becker said his organization does not track whether school attendance at Illinois’ museums is up or down, but he said anecdotally he believes schools have cut back. Because there are no admission costs for school groups at Illinois’ museums, he said, there is no revenue stream to track.

Even if the museums are not losing money on admissions, officials estimate every student spends between $8-15 per day on souvenirs, food and other extras during a field trip, which ultimately could be costly to the venues and the communities not only where the museums are located, but at any stops along the way.

But beyond hat, postcard and t-shirt sales, Becker said the biggest thing museums lose when schools cut back is exposure to that individual potential future customer. “Field trip visits are important for how people feel about museums later in life,” he added.

Becker also said he believes Illinois’ museums have been feeling cut backs in teacher professional development, and he knows Brookfield Zoo has experienced a slight downturn, which is a revenue stream.

“A lot of teachers come over the course of the year to take classes on animal care, science and inquiry that they would incorporate into their classroom,” he said. “That has gone down.”

Becker’s colleague Agnes Kovacs, who manages the zoo’s school, groups and teacher programs, said lack of transportation reimbursements prevents teachers from expanding their curriculum outside the classroom. “Using Brookfield Zoo as a living classroom for hands-on, minds-on learning is impossible without trans­por­tation to the zoo,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Springfield’s Convention and Visitors Bureau schedules group tours of 11 historic sites and museums, including the Abraham Lincoln presidential library and museum, Lincoln’s New Salem, the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln Home and Lincoln’s Tomb. School groups comprise about 70 to 75 percent of bookings. The maximum number of students the agency can accommodate in one season is approximately 100,000. Officials reported that the number of tours was the same in 2009 as 2008, but the number of students on a bus was less.  

“Springfield is inexpensive. You can see a lot of historic sites for absolutely no charge. You can see government in action where laws are being made, argued and discussed, where things are happening and will affect you in the future,” said Kim Rosendahl, director of tourism for the visitors bureau. “The Abraham Lincoln Museum is the most visited presidential museum in the country, and then you can step outside and see the actual places where Lincoln lived and worked. Where else can you do that?”

Planned well, field trips can be the experience of a lifetime for many students. Parenting expert Dawn Lantero, a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune and other publications, said field trips are extremely important because a lot of learning is experiential.

“When children see and experience new things,” she said, “it kindles interest, lights a desire, and reinforces what they learned in class about the world they live in.”

Lantero’s own daughter enjoyed a high school senior class trip to London in 2007.   “The drinking age in London is 18, but these students were not allowed to drink alcohol on the trip.” Getting caught meant a phone call to a parent in the states and a quick, expensive and unplanned trip home.

Fortunately, the trip passed without incident and the students were immersed in everything English including British history, the monarchy, the government there as compared to the government in the U.S., the London theater scene, and more.

That trip of a lifetime may have shaped the rest of her life. Lantero’s daughter, now a senior at Boston College, is getting ready to graduate with a degree in theater.

The Lakeview Museum’s Schafer believes such field trip outcomes are the norm, not the exception.

“Field trips are not an extra,” Schafer said. “They should be regarded as a resource and a standard part of the curriculum that shouldn’t be overlooked.”

SIDEBAR: Field trips pose liability issues

Liability issues are another area that schools must take into account regarding school field trips.

“There are two kinds of field trips,” according to Brian A. Braun, a Champaign-based attorney with a concentration in school law. “The first are explicitly school-sponsored field trips and the second are others that appear to be school endorsed, but aren’t really.”

Braun uses the example of a summer trip overseas led by a foreign language teacher or a field trip led by the PTA when school is not in session that might have an appearance of school endorsement, but doesn’t really. Nevertheless, he said, “the likelihood that the school will be named if something goes wrong is very high. In all cases (of those ‘other’ trips), administrators don’t think they are responsible and they may or may not have liability (coverage), but they really should check to be sure.”

He sited a 1980 case in Collinsville when a group of teachers and students climbed the fence of a locked football field to conduct a powder-puff football game that was banned by the district. Someone got hurt and the school was held liable, even though it had banned the event and locked the field.

“The best practice,” Braun said, “is to take over the event and do it yourself so you can control it, or be very aggressive in banning it and preventing it from happening.”

Braun said in his years of practicing law he has seen numerous horror stories related to field trips, especially when teenagers and foreign countries are involved.

“You put 15 basketball players in hotel rooms, or 100 band kids in Florida, and there are chances of stuff happening because these kids will have a lot of freedom and kids’ hours don’t match chaperones’ hours,” he said. “Those are dangerous situations.”

Sometimes, he added, the chaperones are the ones misbehaving, which is still the school’s responsibility.

 “Assuming your (district is) covered is a bad call,” Braun said. He recommends that schools “call one’s carrier in advance and get it in writing or put a rider on the policy. People have conveniently short memories.”

Braun said there is no one state policy regarding school field trip liability. Every school is responsible for gathering parent permission and getting liability in its own way. He said schools and teachers should also know whether any children have special health needs before a school field trip. “Find out ahead of time who has asthma, allergies, diabetes, seizures.”

Other field trip planners recommend organizers bring water, sun block, extra money, have plenty of chaperones, and make sure the trip is appropriately planned.

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