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Taking the Kids

Education Outside the Classroom

October 16, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ

Fred Brown didn't think twice about taking his 16-year-old son out of school for a week. Brown was going to Malaysia to a conference and the opportunity to introduce his son to another part of the world was too good to pass up.

"Travel is an education," Brown said, acknowledging that catching up afterward was difficult for his son. "The older the child, the harder it is. And it is extra work for the teachers."

Brown understands the difficulties spawned by children missing school for family trips. He is principal of Boyertown, Pa., Elementary School and president of the 26,000-member National Assn. of Elementary School Principals.

When his students take off, Brown expects an oral or written report on where they have been when they come back.

"Have the children read up on where they're going ahead of time and keep a journal," he said. Give the teachers plenty of notice to get their assignments together. And be prepared that there will be catching up to do afterward.

Despite the extra work, the practice of taking children out of school for travel seems to be growing. For one thing, parents are combining business trips with family time. The U.S. Travel Data Center reports that last year, 15% of all business trips included children--about 42 million trips--and estimates suggest that many of those were undertaken when school was in session.

Author Laura Sutherland, for one, will take her kindergartner and second-grader along next month for several weeks while she researches a book on Caribbean islands. "I'm going to develop a unit on the places we're going," said Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz. She will pack sufficient work so her older daughter won't be behind when she returns.

Sutherland knows firsthand the enriching and lifelong benefits travel can provide a child. She spent eighth grade touring Europe when her father, a college professor, took a sabbatical. "It was the best year," she said. "And it made me confident that I could handle new situations and new places."

Other families, particularly those with younger children, prefer to travel off-season when bargains are easier to find and popular locations less crowded.

Some parents simply can't get time off when the kids have school vacations. Take Jim and Carole Thorpe, who run Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and summer breaks are their busiest seasons, Carol Thorpe said.

"So we take an extra week at spring vacation. It's the only time we can go away and be together as a family." She tells the teachers months ahead and is scrupulous about getting her two kids' assignments done while they're away. "But there are teachers who think the only way to learn is in the classroom," she said, sighing.

"Schools have got to be more flexible," said Carole Kennedy, principal of the New Haven Accelerated School in Columbia, Mo., and a board member of the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. "With society changing so rapidly, schools have got to adjust to the needs of families."

Families need to take every chance they've got to teach their kids. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley is calling on schools to spur parents' involvement. In a speech in September, he said that decades of research show that "greater family involvement in children's learning is a critical link to achieving a high-quality education."

Use a trip to teach math (figuring out what souvenirs cost or how to convert foreign currency), geography, social studies and history, said Kennedy, who is taking her granddaughter with her to Bali.

Despite all of the pluses, experts warn, there are drawbacks.

"By middle school, I advise parents to think twice and by high school, I wouldn't encourage it," said Lucinda Lee Katz, director of the University of Chicago K-12 Laboratory School.

"For any child who is struggling in school or who gets very anxious about completing things, it would be difficult," UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman said. "Look at it from the child's point of view. Would it be stressful or fun?"

Chicagoan Paula Wolff, who takes her four children out of school every winter for a Caribbean vacation, remembers the traumas of missed dances and evenings spent trying to complete assignments. Yet the trips were the only time she and her husband could break away from busy careers, and the family decided that the time together was well worth it, giving everyone a chance to connect with each other away from the stresses and strains of home, school and the office. But inevitably, as the kids got older, she added, the trips have become shorter. "Our teachers were not happy about it," said Wolff's 19-year-old daughter Clementine Whelan. "We'd be anxious about what we were missing. But there is no way we'd miss out on it. It's a special family event, something we look forward to all year."

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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