Tight School Budgets Spell Fewer Field Trips

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Gull Wings in Oxnard normally books three field trips per day, Tuesday through Friday, Bowman said.

"By April and May sometimes we would have to open on Mondays because all of the slots would be gone," she said. "I am looking at only six field trips coming up next month."

Many students, Bowman said, receive their first exposure to the cultural arts during field trips. A community therefore misses out on a valuable opportunity to help children develop if the excursions are cut.

"It makes their world smaller," she said. "I would think we'd want our world to be bigger for the kids. To show them more. To expose them to more. So they are hungry for more."

Social and cultural development aside, the loss of field trips has hurt the museum's bottom line. "It is a huge revenue loss for us," Bowman said.

The museum normally charges a 35-student class, including adult supervision, $120 a visit. In January, with almost no field trips booked for February or March, Bowman slashed the cost to $75 per field trip.

"It's unfortunate, but a lot of teachers will fork it out of their own pocket when we run a special," Bowman said.

Susie Cairns, a manager for the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park, had to beg schools last month to bring students to free performances of "I Am That I Am: Woman, Black," a show by an award-winning actor honoring Black and Women's history months in February and March, respectively.

Teachers across the San Fernando Valley and in South L.A. wanted their students to attend, Cairns said, but couldn't get approval for bus transportation. Schools that participated were within walking distance.

"Usually, we fill up the orchestra and balcony" sections, which accommodate about 450 students, said Bryan Marlisa, the theater's box office manager. An average of 175 students attended each of the two performances that highlighted the lives of five black women who made profound contributions to human rights, education, literature and politics.

Before a sparse teenage crowd, Adilah Barnes transformed herself, through words and song, into Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou, said students who had walked in the rain to see the show.

"It made me feel like I knew the women," said Christina Edwards, an 11th-grader at Canoga Park High School. "It made me want to learn more about these people."

"It just seemed to tie everything we've learned in class together," classmate Ryan Brajevich added. "It gives you a different perspective."

History lessons aside, Barnes, the actor, said the arts bolster student self-esteem. Her show, for instance, offered a view of black people that contradicts negative images inundating films, TV and newspaper headlines. "It's important for all students to see positive images of African Americans," she said.

Sometimes, teachers hear complaints from parents that field trips provide an excuse to goof off.

But rarely is that the case, said Tiffany Federico, a veteran English teacher at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. "We don't just go somewhere just to go somewhere," she said. "There is a purpose."

Federico has worked with teachers in math, science or social studies when her classes have visited the Natural History Museum, heard the L.A. Philharmonic play or attended 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, while in math they design a booth for the campus medieval fair.

Venturing out also encourages students to practice their social skills, teachers say.

But most important, it expands their worlds. Federico said many of her students have never been outside a 10-mile radius of their homes.

"I take it for granted every time I go somewhere," she said. "It breaks my heart that my students and their families don't have that kind of opportunity."

Chilton has worked for more than a decade at the aquarium. She is moved every time she witnesses a child viewing 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 draw or 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."

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