Tightening budgets take toll on field trips for city schools

Posted: June 13, 2013

The Winchester Star

Teachers and students from Quarles Elementary School walk along South Loudoun Street Tuesday morning while taking a field trip to the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in downtown Winchester. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — As budgets have become tighter, area school divisions have had to find ways to keep a student favorite — field trips — on the books.

A field trip can travel as far as Williamsburg and as near as the downtown Shenandoah Discovery Museum.

Some last a couple days, while others can be as short as an hour and involve just one or two students.

For the most part, the trips are paid for by the school division.

In Winchester Public Schools, field trips have “decreased tremendously” over the past few years because the division has had to adjust to the poor economy, according to Director of Instruction Lynda Hickey.

Officials have been forced to choose paying for resources, such as textbooks and technology, over the out-of-classroom experience.

“You’re going to have to give up something,” she said.

Field trips are also more localized now, due to the high cost of renting charter buses, as opposed to using regular school buses.

“We don’t travel as far any more,” Hickey said.

Three elementary schools have stopped going to Williamsburg due to the length of the trip — nearly 200 miles from Winchester — and the cost of the buses.

Teachers also have resorted to occasional virtual field trips, where tours of historical places such as Jamestown can be shown on a Smart Board, which acts like a movie screen.

“Is it as better or as good as a real field trip?” Hickey asked. “Of course not.”

City students take an average of one to two field trips a year.

Each of the division’s four elementary schools takes about eight trips, while Daniel Morgan Middle School takes about six. Handley High School takes a variety of trips, which can consist of one person or as many as 80.

Kindergarten students visit local apple orchards and pumpkin patches, while older students travel to places such as Blandy Experimental Farm, Hedgebrook Farms, Abrams Creek Wetlands Preserve, Luray Caverns, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles.

“For many students, they don’t have this opportunity,” Hickey said. “They don’t get to go to some of the places our kids go.”

Frederick County Public Schools has been able to continue going to the same places and has avoided cutting its number of trips.

In fiscal year 2010, the division did not pay for athletic trips at the high school and middle school levels, instead requiring schools to pay for them.

This saved the division $100,000 and made it possible to maintain the number of field trips.

After FY 2010, however, the division reverted to paying the expenses for athletic trips because the other procedure was putting “way too much burden” on the schools, according to Peter Vernimb, assistant superintendent for instruction, who approves all trips in the division.

The division allots about $300,000 each fiscal year for field trips.

From July 1, 2012 to early June, the division took 2,035 field trips. The year before, it took 2,835. Much of the increase was attributed to single-person trips or field trips involving small groups.

In the past year, the division’s 11 elementary schools took 210 field trips, its four middle schools took 352 and its three high schools took 1,473.

To save costs, the division has asked some schools to combine their trips, and officials have asked principals to be more judicious in choosing them.

The division has also switched from a paper-based system to an electronic system for planning trips. “We can scrutinize and route trips better,” Vernimb said.

The county system also has a fleet of about 20 cars that teachers can use to drive a small number of students to events such as debate competitions.

On one trip, a car took a debate team to a competition in Texas in order to allow for a student’s service dog to come along.

All field trips must have educational purposes. “We do not generally approve trips as rewards for being good students,” Vernimb said.

Field trips have also journeyed as far as Kings Dominion (for a math and science competition), Hershey Park in Pennsylvania (for a band competition), and Blacksburg for FFA competitions.

Among Clarke County’s five schools in 2012-13, 100 field trips were taken — an increase from 79 in 2009-10.

The most-visited places include Blandy, museums in Washington D.C., Mount Vernon, New Market Battlefield, Oak Hart Farm, Great Country Farms, James Madison University Planetarium, Sherando High School and Park, Monticello, the Army National Guard Center, Clermont Farm and the Apple Blossom Mall.

When asked if field trips have changed, Schools Superintendent Mike Murphy said, “Only in the sense that with fewer dollars and more attention to high-stakes testing, field trips have been getting, and will continue to get, fewer and fewer.”

— Contact Rebecca Layne atrlayne@winchesterstar.com