Scores of second-graders scrambled through the airy Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, huddling inside simulators to feel the shaking of an earthquake, building mini-ski jumps to learn about speed and shaping wet sand into riverbanks to observe erosion. The hands-on experiences allowed them to test theories they had only read about in textbooks or heard about from teachers.
"A couple of kids have asked me, 'Is this really science?' " said Kathleen Carney, a teacher at Deerfield Elementary School in Irvine.
At a time of shrinking budgets and increased emphasis on standardized testing, such class visits to science centers, museums and zoos are becoming increasingly rare, according to educators and site operators.
Sixty percent of teachers surveyed across the nation reported decreased funding for field trips in recent years. In California, that could get worse as school districts grapple with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, which would cut about $4.8 billion in education funding this year and next.
Field trip coordinators, school principals and teachers attribute the decline in student visitors to increased classroom hours devoted to the high-stakes English and math testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as budget cuts.
'Money is a huge issue'
"Everything is geared toward that testing," said Linda Kahn, a vice president at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana. "And money. Money is a huge issue for each and every school."
Between the 2005-06 and the 2006-07 school years, student visits to Bowers' "First Californians" exhibit about mission life dropped nearly 50%, to 880 students, she said.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has seen a sharp decline every year since 2004-05, when 241,075 students visited. Last year, the number dropped to 172,764, which museum officials attribute squarely to increasingly crowded school days and concerns about funding.
"It makes me terribly sad," said Carl Selkin, the museum's vice president for education, who grew up in New York City. "I still remember when I was a kid in school how exciting field trips were. I just grew to love museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also the American Museum of Natural History. Those are images I still carry with me."
Because it does not charge admission, the National Zoo in Washington does not keep track of student visitors. But teachers routinely tell officials about the obstacles they face in taking trips to the 163-acre zoo.
"We've heard from many teachers the same sorts of problems -- it's cost-prohibitive, they have to test to the standards so there's not time for field trips, there are not enough chaperons. We hear that all the time," said Elise Bernardoni, an education specialist with Friends of the National Zoo. "A lot of schools just flat out can't pay $300 for a bus, and frankly, there's nothing we can do about that."
Myra Ruedal and two other fifth-grade teachers at Emperor Elementary in San Gabriel received a grant to take their students on field trips last year -- a priority, not a luxury, the teacher said.
"Because of the low economic [level] of our students, they don't get to go anywhere," Ruedal said. "We're taking them beyond the borders of Temple City and San Gabriel. They get to see there's life outside of this community."
As part of a spending freeze, the Riverside Unified School District in January ordered its schools to reevaluate the necessity of any field trip not funded by donations.
Teachers were told to "ask yourself if the expenditure is absolutely necessary for the well-being of kids," said Dianne Pavia, a district spokeswoman.
In Moreno Valley, one of Supt. Rowena Lagrosa's first tasks when she took over in 2006 was to scale back field trips. Some were not educational, such as end-of-the-year excursions to amusement parks, she said. Others no longer fit in schools' crammed schedules, she said. The district takes 40% to 60% fewer trips than it once did.
The 37,351-student district has been named a "program improvement district," which means it is struggling to meet math and English goals under No Child Left Behind. The standardized testing has already been blamed for decreased arts and music education in some districts across the nation.
"Time is our most valuable asset," Lagrosa said. "Our school years are just not long enough, and our school days are just not long enough. We want to ensure that when parents send students to school, it's for instruction."
In February, a charter school in Watts canceled a trip to a screening of "The Little Red Truck," a documentary about a touring children's theater, because of the $400 transportation cost.
"Buses are incredibly expensive," said Dinah Consuegra, principal of Animo Locke Tech Charter High School. "The funding just wasn't available for us to go."
The filmmakers responded by bringing the film to the school. But Consuegra fears that future experiences, as well as arts education, simply will be eliminated because of the governor's proposed budget cuts.
"If those kinds of resources get cut from our school, I think our dropout rate will be much higher," she said.
Getting in alignment
Some museums and other institutions are responding by aligning their programs with state and federal standards.
After the 1998 opening of the Discovery Science Center, 84,781 students visited on field trips during its first fiscal year. But the numbers began to dip, and within three years it had lost 23,000 field trip visitors annually. So center officials redesigned the exhibits to emphasize their link to California science standards, which dictate what concepts students must be taught at each grade level. The museum also focused on a specific grade level each month. "We upgraded the field trip experience," said Leslie Perovich, vice president of the center. "We use large-scale exhibits to teach science concepts tied into the grade level."
It worked. The numbers began climbing, and in the fiscal year that ended in June, 83,949 students visited the center.
Kahn said Bowers held a workshop for elementary school teachers in April to show how the museum could tie into their lesson plans and expects to hold more in the fall.
Schools that continue to take trips increasingly rely on parental fundraisers and grants. Some turn to city councils for help in paying for buses.
The Anaheim City School District paid for field trips at every grade level until budget cuts about five years ago, according to spokeswoman Suzi Brown. Today, the nearly 20,000-student district spends about $19,000 annually to pay transportation costs for a kindergarten trip to a farm and a third-grade trip to an Anaheim history museum. (PTAs, fundraisers and donations pay for a limited number of trips at other grade levels.)
To deal with Schwarzenegger's budget, district officials are discussing eliminating the kindergarten and third-grade trips. "It's scary," Brown said.
Laura Magana of Anaheim says she is worried that her year-old daughter, Katelyn, will not have the field trip experiences her older children enjoyed. Magana fondly remembers her 15-year-old daughter Briana's fourth-grade trip to Upper Newport Bay, where she learned about the Native Americans who once lived there, native plant life and the birds who forage in the water.
"Kids get bored of being taught constantly out of a book," she said.
The Target Corp. began offering grants after a 2007 survey of 400 U.S. teachers revealed that nearly two-thirds reported field trips had been reduced in their school budgets.
"I was stunned, quite frankly," said Laysha Ward, Target's vice president of community relations. "There's a huge need."
The company responded by offering 800 grants of as much as $1,000 each in the last school year. Some 16,000 teachers applied, without advertising. This year, the company doubled the offer to $1.6 million.
Last spring, Ruedal at Emperor Elementary used an $850 grant from Target to take about 100 students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It was one of five field trips the teachers took last year.
"That one day," Ruedal said, "they learn so much more than what a textbook can show them."