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Dwindling Funds Spell Fewer Trips

Schools forced to trim budgets for necessary expenses are apt to first cut off-campus excursions.

March 15, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

"I learned that sharks have rows of teeth. I learned that seals have ears like us. The thing I enjoyed the most was touching the sea urchins, sea anemones, sea star and abalone. I also liked the tiger shark's teeth."

-- From an elementary school girl after her visit to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.

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Many children grow up in Southern California without ever seeing the ocean.

They're surrounded by mountain ranges, but many have never walked a trail or basked in the trees, flowers and wildlife.

Hundreds of thousands of students from poor families would never experience nature or the arts if it weren't for school field trips, say teachers, administrators, parents and docents.

But opportunities for school excursions have declined this year because of the state budget crisis, with proposed public-education cutbacks resulting in school districts big and small reducing or eliminating the use of buses for trips not involving athletic events or college tours.

Few dispute the educational, social and cultural benefits of field trips. But in cash-strapped school districts -- which is to say most of them -- officials say they must use their dwindling funds for immediate needs, such as teachers, textbooks, paper, pencils, and computer and office equipment. Almost anything else is a luxury.

"It's sad, because field trips are very important," said Velma Keller, an assistant principal at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles, one of the region's poorest areas. "You never know when a particular field trip is going to be an eye-opener for a failing or marginal student. It can turn the student's thoughts around, inspire, trigger the student to move up a notch. It can change a life."

Not all field trips in a district come from a school's budget. Some are paid for by grants or scholarships. Businesses, community agencies and other agencies sponsor excursions. Parents also raise funds. Many destinations also waive the fees for school trips, leaving only transportation costs as the potential deal-breaker.

"At this point, the focus is on the basics, those things central to the classroom," said Cricket Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, with 736,000 students. The majority of those youngsters come from low-income homes, where, teachers say, families cannot afford the time or money for day trips of their own.

Anticipating state cuts, the L.A. district estimated earlier this year that it needs to reduce its spending by $480 million during the next 18 months. That's in addition to $430 million in cuts that the Los Angeles school board has already made this year, curtailing administrative expenses and causing crowded classes to swell.

"There is just not a lot of money for field trips," Bauer said.

It's the same story in the 97,000-student Long Beach Unified School District, where the state is expected to slash $28 million from the overall budget of $678.4 million. "The top priority is sparing the classroom," spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said.

Long Beach's Parent-Teacher and Parent-Teacher-Student associations, which help fund many of the district's field trips, are preparing to make tough choices about how to allocate the money they raise, said Kristie Watkins, president of the Long Beach Council PTA, which includes 61 groups in Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill and Avalon.

Should money go toward library books, computers, playground equipment, essay contests, spelling bees, book fairs -- oh, and field trips? Each school group has "to figure out what's most important," said Watkins, the mother of a ninth-grader. "We want to do what's best for the students."

Often, it's not field trips. "We haven't had a whole lot of calls from the schools," said Cindy Montano, who arranges tours for the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro.

School administrators for districts statewide said most campuses have not compiled statistics on field trips. Since L.A. Unified began clamping down in January, officials at local destinations don't have numbers showing how many students have visited their sites. Some popular places, such as the Los Angeles Zoo, the George C. Page Museum and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, haven't experienced a drop in student tours.

Yet. Linda Chilton, Cabrillo's education specialist, said many of the excursions were booked before the first of the year. She said she has also fielded a rash of cancellation calls during the last month. She wonders if the cancellations are a harbinger.

"I worry, because it would be tragic," Chilton said.

The Cabrillo is one of the area's top field trips destinations, officials said. Each year, an estimated 125,000 students visit the aquarium, about half of them from L.A. Unified. "For many of the kids, it's their first trip to the ocean," Chilton said. "It's their first experience with nature."

The field trip destinations hit hardest so far are the smaller venues: the local nature centers, museums, city government buildings, theaters.

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