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From rain forests to savannas, spring break has a new look

March 30, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

For spring break this year, Paris and Madrid seemed too tame, so high school sophomore George Tew chose to visit Costa Rica, where he and 17 classmates studied the ecosystem and worked on conservation projects.

"When Costa Rica came up this year, it stood out from the rest because it's small and not in Europe," he said a few days before departing on the weeklong journey. "Just a chance to go to the rain forest and a volcano I thought would be so cool."

George is among a growing number of high school -- and middle school -- students using spring break to travel abroad on trips that can cost thousands of dollars and include traditional sightseeing as well as community service and language studies.

Although there are no firm statistics on the growth of teen travel abroad, a 2006 study by Michigan State University estimated expenditures for 12- to 18-year-olds on overnight domestic and foreign group trips at more than $9.8 billion. That age group, the survey shows, is a growing segment of the travel market. Spring is the most popular travel period, and 40% of the trips are sponsored by schools.

Many schools send students across the country to national monuments or on college scouting trips, but increasing numbers are adding foreign travel opportunities as a corollary to the trend of providing a global curriculum.

George, a student at the private Viewpoint School in Calabasas, has at age 16 traveled to more far-flung locales than many adults. During a spring break trip sponsored by his school last year, he explored Italy with 26 classmates, practicing his reading of Latin in the ancient city of Pompeii.

More schools are providing financial aid or scholarships for students whose families would otherwise not be able to afford the trips. Private donations and a portion of Viewpoint's financial aid budget of more than $2 million help pay for some expenses on the trips, which cost $1,900 to $3,300 per student, depending on the destination, said Chad Tew, George's father and the school's chief financial officer.

Many students still spend spring break at the nearest party or at home trying to avoid homework until the last minute. But overseas travel is on the rise, for students of public and private schools alike.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the travel boom, including requirements at many schools for student volunteer work, enhancing resumes for college applications and even parental guilt over the lack of time spent with children.

"Some parents are trying to make up for that by giving kids these travel experiences that a generation ago wouldn't have been on the radar screen," said Donald F. Holecek, director of the Student and Youth Travel Research Institute at Michigan State University. "These trips are also becoming educational necessities for students and parents. In terms of having an impact, touching, seeing and doing will stay in the brain, while work from textbook or lectures might slide by."

The International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, a private dual-language immersion school, each year sends seventh- and eighth-graders to France, China or Mexico, where they speak the language, spend time in classrooms and go on day trips.

Students at the Francis Parker School, a private kindergarten through 12th-grade campus in San Diego, are completing a two-week trip to South Africa, including a stay at the Savannah Wildlife Preserve where they are studying a cheetah breeding program.

In a daily journal posted on the school's website, the students wrote of attending Easter services at the First African Methodist Church in Tumahole Township, clapping and singing with the congregation. After a tour of the township the students returned to the preserve, relaxing at the pool after a spaghetti dinner.

"Some of us went for a run around the preserve, and got to see animals in the distance," the students wrote. "There was a giraffe not too far away, cows, horses, impala, sable, and a herd of wildebeests. The day was perfect."

Claire McKinley, 17, a Francis Parker senior, went on the South Africa trip two years ago and returned with a passion for international travel. She wants to work in international development after college.

"I was very much on the fence when I saw the package about South Africa," McKinley recalls. "I wasn't going to go until a friend said she was going. I went home and figured my parents would say no and that would be the end of it. But they said it would be crazy to miss an opportunity like this. I was not that excited, and now it is something I would never imagine missing."

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