October 7, 2002
Broadening the classroom experience
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Writer
To absorb the sights and sounds of college life, a Northshore School District teacher took his elementary class to the University of Washington. His students walked the campus and explored the multi-storied library of several million books. The teacher, like countless other educators, hoped to expand his students' learning experience through an adventure beyond classroom walls. School excursions to real world places spark wonder or indignation. A trip to a working farm might prompt a curiosity about the growth of plants and farming. A class hike in the woods to view oil, yellow bubbles and trash floating in a salmon-bearing stream could ignite an interest in ecology. Either way, the school field trip serves as a living laboratory where students touch, feel, hear, smell and see for themselves what a textbook can't duplicate.
Many school districts in the Puget Sound region have cut back on field trips due to the expense. Northshore School District students, however, continue to enjoy a couple of class outings per year. Some favorite trips include visits to the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Symphony, Carnation Farms and Edmonds Beach at low tide. "We have a lot of field trips that go to the Seattle Center," says John Bond, Executive Director of Elementary Education. Also, the pumpkin patch at The Farm in Snohomish ranks high in popularity with the younger set. Kindergartners and first graders ride in a hay wagon through acres of plump, orange pumpkins. They also delight in face-to-face interaction with energetic puppies, pigs and a host of other barnyard animals. Bond points out an educational benefit to the fun experience, stating, "Some students live in the suburbs and don't spend time on a farm." In addition, secondary students also journey outside the classroom. Instead of an eyewitness view of a farm, junior high and high school students take a look at the judicial process through a tour of the King County Courthouse. Or, they might trek to Olympia to observe a legislative session. "The public agencies bend over backwards to work with us," Bond notes.
The Northshore School District, he explains, promotes field trips because they bring relevance to the topic of study. "It's something we see that is valuable and enriching-and also tied to our academic standards."
The District's fifth grade students participate in a two and a half day field trip held each year at Camp Casey. The outdoor education program focuses on science in a study of marine habitat, forestry and biology. Sixth graders take their study of Canada out of the country for an international day trip. "Several of our elementary schools take their sixth grade students to Victoria, B.C.," Bond says. "We expect field trips to have a link to academics and to be fun."
Seattle area teachers agree that field trips enrich a student's education but say that the trips have become too expensive.
Many have stopped taking them all together. The cost for a bus alone can be as much as $150 to $175 for one day's use. Add the price of admission tickets and a substitute teacher to cover middle and high school classes and field trips carry a fat price tag.
Bond says the Northshore School District has kept the price of field trips down by utilizing private vehicles for transportation. Currently, the District uses school buses for kindergarten and first grade class outings in response to a new Washington State law mandating booster seats for children weighing 60 pounds or less. "We are in the process of figuring out how we are going to take into account the new booster seat legislation," Bond says, mentioning the District will continue to rely on parent volunteers to drive older students to the intended destinations for the time being.
He also recognizes the transportation expense other districts face. "There's an understanding that most districts have moved away from private vehicles," he says, adding that Northshore's system of asking for parent drivers has worked well. Parent volunteers submit to an insurance and background check prior to a field trip. Also, the PTA helps to cut costs down by providing some of the funding involved with class outings. Parents do their part as well. As an example, parents cover two-thirds of the cost to send their child to Camp Casey.
In the fall of 1999, King County's Dept. of Natural Resources and Parks decided to help schools out with the high cost of transportation. They began offering free bus service in an ecology-centered program called 'Wheels to Water.' Supported by Executive Ron Sims and funded through the Dept. of Natural Resources, 'Wheels to Water' transports students in a Metro bus to a variety of environmental field trips. Some of the trips include tours of a wastewater treatment plant and the Seattle Aquarium; others have hands-on field activities at outdoor locations like Carkeek Park and Tiger Mountain. Stella Bass, seventh grade science teacher at Washington Middle School in Seattle, has taken advantage of the King County-sponsored program, as her district does not use private vehicles for transportation. "We were ever so grateful for the opportunity to take our kids on these field trips and to have the busses paid for," she says, mentioning that it's her hope Executive Sims will continue to find money in the budget to fund the program. The field trip to the wastewater treatment plant was a big hit with her science class students who donned hard hats and witnessed the progressive stages of raw sewage as it transformed to 'fairly' clean water. "They're making connections that apply to their own lives. I think that's really valuable," says Bass.
Bond says that students can also make real world connections without ever leaving their classroom. Authors, artists, groups from the Pacific Science Center and other professionals share their experiences at the schools through on-site workshops. Bond recalls the Snohomish County Transit bringing a bus to the schools and allowing the kids to get inside it. Says Bond, "Field trips, assemblies, experts...they all serve the same need of broadening the classroom experience."