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Tight School Budgets Spell Fewer Field Trips

Districts forced to use dwindling funds on required expenses are apt to first cut off-campus excursions.

March 15, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein And Rodney Bosch | Times Staff Writers

"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.

*

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.

World-class museums, theaters and music centers abound, but many children have never admired a painting, delighted in a play or listened to a classical aria.

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.

Leana Bowman, executive director of Gull Wings Children's Museum in Oxnard, worries that the loss to students can't be measured.

"Going off campus is an enrichment, a social exercise," she said. "You have to behave; you have to listen. You have to learn to be a guest."

Velma Keller, an assistant principal at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles, agrees. "It's sad, because field trips are very important," she said.

"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."

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. Most anything else is a luxury.

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.

In Ventura County, planning for an annual performance series presented by the county's superintendent of schools is currently idled, said Brian Bemel, coordinator of performing arts for the superintendent's office.

Each year, students attend theater, dance, music and puppetry performances as part of the "Adventures in the Performing Arts" series.

The student tickets are funded mainly by PTA groups and individual schools, Bemel said.

With the prospects of dwindling cash reserves being directed away from field trips, Bemel was told to put off booking arts groups for next year.

"Usually by this time I already have my whole season booked for next year," Bemel said. "But with all the uncertainty, I have been told to hold off on booking everything."

Bemel said he remains hopeful that four or five programs can be offered, based on feedback from PTA members and school officials who say they hope to salvage some funding for the series.

However, he said, the current performance season has suffered from lower attendance, most notably beginning in February.

"I had schools with reservations that canceled at the last minute," he said. "They said it was because of the budget crisis and uncertainty."

Bemel also produces a separate four-installment arts series for Conejo Unified School District, which he said the district plans on funding for next season.

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-trip destinations, officials said.

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