Published: March 3, 2014
Shrinking school budgets and stricter academic standards have changed the face of field trips.
Not only are off-campus treks to the zoo or a museum harder to pull off, but they're also not all fun and games anymore. Still, teachers say they're worth the effort, and organizations that try to attract school groups are pulling out all the stops to make them happen.
Nothing beats hands-on activities like a visit to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, said Jon O'Lonergan, who teaches film, photography, computer graphics, animation and other classes at Air Academy High School in Academy District 20.
"Organizing it takes quite a bit of time, but I see the value of students seeing real, professional art," he said. "I have them describe, analyze and critique the art, so they love coming here. It reaches all ages and engages them."
The FAC, which features traveling exhibitions as well as permanent art collections, is just one of many local field trip possibilities. But teachers often aren't aware of what's available, said Tara Thomas, the FAC's director of education.
That's why the arts center recently hosted its fifth annual field trip expo for educators. About 15 organizations around town, from the United States Olympic Committee to Chico Basin Ranch Bird Banding, set up exhibits inside the FAC with information about their destinations. More than 100 teachers from all grade levels and school districts, including colleges, attended, Thomas said.
Melissa Ferris, a first-grade teacher at Academy Endeavor Elementary, also in D-20, went to the fair to get some new ideas and find out about price breaks. Cost is definitely "a deterrent," she said. "Which is why we only have one field trip per year."
Transportation for field trips can run $10 to $12 per student, teachers say.
"It's a real issue. We've done things like group classes together for field trips, have fundraisers where students make things and sell them to teachers, and look for places that are free," said Evelyn Gomez, who teaches at Fox Meadow Middle School in Harrison District 2.
Some organizations, such as the Space Foundation Discovery Center, have been successful in obtaining grants to help defray costs. The American Numismatic Association's Money Museum is taking a similar route.
After experiencing a "significant drop" in field trips two years ago, the money museum decided to supply one free bus to local schools that schedule an educational tour, said Rod Gillis, numismatic educator.
That courtesy costs the organization $75 to $200 per bus, he said, depending on the travel distance, but benefactors have helped offset the expense. On top of that, admission is free to students, teachers and chaperones, who learn about how coins were made 300 years ago, the different forms of currency and why a coin can be worth millions of dollars.
"We were down to a low of 15 field trips per year; now we've more than doubled to 30 to 40 per year," Gillis said.
Attracting students also means tailoring programs to meet state curriculum demands.
Ferris said teachers have to justify to school leadership, as well as parents, why they want to take a field trip and what standards they hope to meet.
In response, the McAllister House Museum, a restored English Gothic cottage built in 1873 as the town's first brick house, has stepped into the 21st century.
"We realized that field trips were just a fun day getaway from school and we wanted to emphasize education," said Owanah Wick, curator.
So the museum revamped its school program two years ago to encompass culture, entertainment, history, ancestry, architecture and other lessons on par with what's being taught in the classroom. Students learn what school was like in the 19th century, how families washed their clothes, what a dormer window is and other aspects of life back then.
More than 400 students from six schools visited the museum last spring.
In the same vein, the FAC provides a variety of tours for students, including ones that emphasize writing, theater or architecture.
"How we support the state standards makes a real difference for why classes come here," the FAC's Thomas said. "It's more than just looking at pretty artwork. We challenge students to think deeper - what was the artist thinking, how would you portray an emotion. It's that critical thinking piece that's important today."