"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."
-- A schoolgirl 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 experienced a painting, a play or a classical aria.
Hundreds of thousands of students from poor families would never experience nature or the arts were it not 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, school districts big and small have reduced or eliminated the use of buses for trips not involving athletic events or college tours. Officials say they must use their dwindling funds for immediate needs, such as teachers, textbooks, supplies and computer and office equipment. While few dispute the value of field trips, they're considered a luxury.
"It's very unfortunate, particularly for a lot of our children who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds," said Suzi Brown of the Anaheim City School District.
Although trips planned for this school year will not be affected by cutbacks, the district is having to prioritize and get creative for next year, Brown said.
"We will look at walking field trips, depending on what's near the school -- like businesses, the library or the firehouse," said Brown, citing transportation fees as the main obstacle to field trip funding.
Pupils in the Buena Park School District could miss trips to Upper Newport Bay, Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and Dana Point, said Asst. Supt. Marilou Ryder, who said the district has "pulled in the reins a bit."
"It's wonderful to send kids on field trips, but if they need library books ... these are the hard decisions we're making right now," said Ryder. "It all boils down to student learning."
Not all field trips are financed by schools. Some are paid for with grants, scholarships, by businesses and community organizations -- and parents. Many destinations waive admission fees, leaving only transportation costs as the deal-breaker.
Linda Chilton, education specialist at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, said she has fielded a rash of cancellation calls recently and wonders if it they are a harbinger. "I worry, because it would be tragic," Chilton said.
The Cabrillo is one of the area's top field trip destinations, attracting about 125,000 students annually. "For many of the kids, it's their first trip to the ocean," Chilton said. "It's their first experience with nature."
Brown said the Anaheim district would try to maintain its most popular field trips.
Anaheim's sixth-graders attend a countywide outdoor science camp in the San Bernardino Mountains at their own expense, and conduct fund-raisers starting a year earlier.
Another tradition: The third-grade trip to the Mother Colony House, the oldest home in Anaheim, as the children study the city's history. Brown said the district is looking to raise money to cover transportation costs, since most schools are not within walking distance.
Tiffany Federico, an English teacher at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, has taken students to the Natural History Museum, to hear the L.A. Philharmonic and attend the show and dinner at Medieval Times in Buena Park.
Using the medieval theme, Federico assigns students to write reports on kings and knights. She shows them how to do research in the library. She incorporates creative writing. In social studies, students learn the history of the Middle Ages.Venturing out also encourages students to practice their social skills, teachers say. But most important, it expands their world. Federico said many of her students have never been outside a 10-mile radius of their homes.
Chilton has worked for more than a decade at the Cabrillo aquarium. She is moved every time she sees children view the ocean for the first time. They smile. They squeal. They jump up and down. They weep. They laugh. They stare in awe.
All their lives, "they look outside their windows and see concrete," Chilton said. "For the first time they're seeing nature. They see birds and animals. The ocean."
The environment inspires, Chilton said. Students compose poems and stories about their surroundings. They paint pictures. They read. They talk with their family about what they did in school. They write letters:
"I like the aquarium. It is big there and nice. I like the sea star. I tuch it. The sea star is hard. We went on the bus to get there. It was a long way there. I like the jellyfish. It was nice."
-- A boy after his visit to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.