Mark Proffitt still remembers the thrill of being sprung from school for class outings to Old Sturbridge Village or the state Capitol. "You couldn't wait to go on field trips," recalled Proffitt, now an elementary school principal in Middletown.
For today's students, such experiences are increasingly elusive. Tight budgets and rising gas prices, concerns about safety and the sheer hassle of taking kids out into the world are leading some schools to reduce or eliminate field trips.
And now there's a powerful new force keeping students in their seats during the school day: the drive to boost performance on standardized tests. That has led principals to jettison "extras" such as field trips in their quest to wring every minute of instructional time from an already crammed school day.
In other words, an afternoon spent gazing at masterpieces in an art museum is getting harder to justify.
"We have a limited amount of time for instruction," said Karen List, an assistant superintendent in West Hartford. "Given all the demands that are placed upon us these days, we want to make sure every single moment is a valuable moment."
The pressure to improve student performance is especially intense in urban school systems struggling beneath the weight of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. James Thompson, the assistant superintendent in Hartford, said his district is reviewing its field trip policy to make sure every excursion connects to a classroom lesson.
"Schools are still taking field trips, but we want to make sure those trips are in line with the standards," he said. "What we're trying to do is extend our teaching and learning opportunities."
No one is disputing the merit of exposing children to a world beyond the school grounds. Such trips are especially important for poor kids, who may not otherwise have a chance to go.
"The classroom gets to be a very small place," said Sally Hill, associate director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden. "But No Child Left Behind and all of the mastery demands make it very difficult to say, 'I just want my kids to have a cool experience.'"
Principals and teachers say well-crafted field studies still have a place in education, especially if those trips reflect and reinforce the curriculum.
"When a field trip is connected with work in the classroom, it has a strong effect on kids," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "There's no better way to experience something than when it's right in front of you."
Despite that, some institutions that cater to schools say they are noticing a sharp drop in attendance. The number of students visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum dropped from 17,742 during the 2005-06 academic year to 12,221 last year. During that same span, the number of visitors from Hartford schools fell from about 5,000 to about 3,000.
Museum officials aren't sure why school attendance has slipped. "We've done nothing differently. Our programs continue to build," said Dawn Salerno, associate museum educator for school and family audiences. "It makes us wonder what's going on at the school level."
The dwindling number of school groups from Hartford is especially vexing. City students receive free admission; even the cost of transportation is covered.
Museum staff members plan to meet with educators from around the state. "We need to ask the question, 'Why aren't you sending students, and what more can we do?'" Salerno said, adding that she understand the enormous pressure facing schools these days. "They have too much to focus on."
It was with a somewhat heavy heart that Nancy DePalma, principal of Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford, opted to eliminate a popular fourth-grade field trip to Ellis Island. Although the trip resonated strongly in a school with a sizable immigrant population, it was canceled because of spiraling costs, safety worries and the demands of an increasingly rich curriculum.
"It's hard for me. My dad came through Ellis Island," DePalma said. "But the reality is, can we find other ways for kids to get these experiences? When we pull kids out [during] the instructional day, are we getting the best bang for our buck?"
Institutions that depend on school groups are looking for new ways to make themselves relevant in an age when test scores trump all.
At the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, the staff worked with educators in West Hartford to develop a program on the solar system that reflects the content of the Connecticut Mastery Test. "The standards are written specifically to say what the learning outcomes should be," said Jonathan Craig, the center's director. "It's making us rework some of the things we do and giving us new opportunities, too. ... It's a matter of adapting to the changing environment."
Even Old Sturbridge Village, a mainstay on the school field trip calendar for several generations, has begun offering enticements such as free admission to schools. The outdoor history museum also is developing programs that reinforce educational standards in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the three states that provide Old Sturbridge Village with the bulk of its visitors.
"We're having to align what we do with what students are being assessed on," said Shawn Parker, head of the education division. "We're trying to make sure we can show teachers that we can be part of their toolbox for fulfilling what's expected of them."
That's good news to Mark Proffitt, the Middletown principal who remembers his own childhood field trips with fondness.
"I would hate to think these opportunities are being diminished," he said. "I remember my field trip to Sturbridge Village. I remember my field trip to the Capitol. Those kinds of things are part learning experiences. They provide memories and experiences for a lifetime."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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