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field trips
Jasmine Capili and Cesar Viallsenor try to figure out an Exploratorium exhibit on sound waves while their classmate, Stephanie Posadas Torres, listens at the end of a glass tube in the background. All three sixth-grade students are from Vallejo, Calif. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

VALLEJO, CALIF. — Taking 175 sixth-graders on two forms of transportation, then leading them on a one mile walk through San Francisco to a downtown science museum is no small task. But it’s one teacher Linda Holt may be doing far more regularly in the coming years. That’s because her school district, in Vallejo, Calif., made the decision last summer to allocate more money to field trips over the next several school years.

The decision comes as a result of California’s new school funding rules, which eliminated many of the traditional earmarks on state funding and handed the privilege, and the challenge, of allocating funds to the districts. Known as the “Local Control Funding Formula,” the new rules require that district leaders make funding decisions only after asking for input from teachers, parents and students.

Vallejo Superintendent Ramona Bishop took that directive very seriously for her 15,500-student district. In addition to collecting surveys from a quarter of the student body, which is about a third black, a third Latino and 18 percent Filipino, she set up small-group meetings at the middle and high schools.

“They really were articulate,” Bishop said of the students she met with. “I think I was underestimating my students. I hate to say that as a superintendent.”

“More disadvantaged students have less opportunities to be exposed to cultural activities so they really need the school to do it for them.”

The idea to spend more money on field trips — students also asked for new textbooks, yummier lunches and more afterschool activities — came from students at the district’s alternative high school.

“It was all about, ‘take us places where you take your kids, Dr. Bishop,’” she said. Students listed museums, college campuses and military bases as examples of where they might want to go.

Jake Howland, 17, attends Vallejo’s alternative John W. Finney High School. He said school officials usually don’t ask what students think “because they don’t want to hear about the problems. But if your school’s not all the way it should be, there are problems that you could make clear,” he said.

Though Jake was at last year’s meeting with Bishop, he didn’t remember field trips coming up. Neither did Tiffany Dotson, 17, who was at last year’s meeting as well. Tiffany said she’d only been on one field trip — to the California Hall of Sciences in San Francisco — during her years in Vallejo’s public schools. But she recalled it vividly.

“Probably it would have helped me,” stay out of trouble to go on more field trips, Tiffany said. “I’m a hands-on learner.”

Related: California’s new school funding system stumbles into its first year

Whether they remembered suggesting it or not, the students’ field trip idea now appears on page 29 of the 41-page plan that outlines how the Vallejo City Unified School District will spend its money for this school year through the 2016-17 school year. Common Core-aligned materials, art supplies, science supplies, library improvements, and several staff positions are among the other new items in the district’s $124 million budget. Field trips in grades 4 to 12 claimed $120,000 of the budget this school year. By 2016-17, there will be $360,000 available to grades K to 12, enough for every child in the district to attend at least one field trip.

“They don’t want to hear about the problems. But if your school’s not all the way it should be, there are problems that you could make clear.”

The new money was doled out to schools in September, said Mitch Romao, who oversees the district’s funding plan under the state’s new local control laws. Once the school year starts, it’s mostly up to teachers to decide where to take their students on field trips , Romao said. The district does provide some guidelines: Fourth- and fifth-graders should see colleges or universities, middle school students are meant to learn more about art or science on their trips and high school students should visit places that teach them about their chosen academy’s area of focus.

“As far as I know, every school is using as much of the money as possible,” Romao said. “We’re not quite sure if they’re going to use it all or if they’ll need a couple dollars more.”

As transportation is the most expensive part of any trip, Romao said district officials calculated the field trip budget based on the cost of bus rentals, which he said run around $600 for a day’s excursion

And that’s how, after 15 years of teaching at Franklin Middle School and not once taking a single student on a field trip to the Exploratorium, a science museum in nearby San Francisco, Holt found herself supervising the loading of three buses full of museum-bound 11- and 12-year-olds.

“Just let it be fun,” prayed Ra’ven Powell, 12, as she waited to board the bus to the subway station. Today’s trip would be only her second to a museum, she said, after the time she went to a dinosaur museum with her grandma. Ra’ven was expecting to see “stuff from the 1970s or something.”

field trips
Franklin Middle School students from Vallejo, Calif., experiment with a “spinning blackboard” while on a field trip to San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

On the second leg of the 90-minute journey, a group of boys clinging to a subway pole were similarly unsure of what they would see. Slime, squids, emeralds, fossils, skeletons, rocks and candy all made the hoped-for list.

Some of the confusion was probably due to the infrequency with which these students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, go on such trips. According to their teachers, most don’t come from families that can afford to spend much time in museums.

$360,000 — Amount teachers in Vallejo City Unified School District will have to spend on field trips in 2016-17, triple what they have this school year and up from $0 earmarked in the district budget last year.

But some of the confusion was generated by the school. The museum tickets — free to Franklin’s students — had originally been secured for the eighth-graders. When Holt heard a few weeks before the trip that her sixth-graders would be going instead, she was thrilled, but overwhelmed. She went to find the school’s activity director.

“I go ask all the questions,” Holt said. “When you ask all the questions, you get all the jobs.”

But not all the details. No one had told Holt the district money was meant to cover a bus tide all the way into the city. Consequently, Holt reserved buses just to take her students to the subway station and bought subway tickets with money earned from the sixth-grade dance. Between handling all of that and requesting parent chaperones, Holt also erroneously told some of her students that they would be going to the Tech Museum rather than the Exploratorium. They were never going to the Tech Museum, which is in San Jose, but the error meant that several students still didn’t know where they were going on the day of the trip.

Nevertheless, they all seemed happy to be going somewhere.

Field trips, as measured by student visits to museums, fell sharply during the recession. A third of districts nationally cut field trips entirely during the 2010-11 school year, according to an American Association of School Administrators survey.

Schools in California were particularly hard hit by the recession. The state plunged to 50th in per student spending in 2010-11, according to Education Week’s rankings. An informal poll of a half dozen California museums found that field trip attendance dropped universally in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, for example, experienced a field trip attendance decline from 137,671 students* in the 2007-08 school year to just 98,176 in 2009-10. Attendance has come back up at most museums, including the Natural History Museum, which had rebounded to 131,292 field trip visitors by the 2013-14 school year. In part, that’s because districts like Vallejo have begun loosening their belts. It’s also because museums like the Exploratorium have increased programs that offer free admission for students from low-income schools, like Franklin.

Amid increased pressures on schools to produce top test scores, Molly Porter, manager of school and teacher programs for the Natural History Museum and the Page Museum, worries many will decide to forgo out-of-school field trips.

“It’s expensive and it does take (time) out of the class day, but it is instructional time and it is valuable,” Porter said. “I hope that we can be seen as a vital component of a well-rounded formal education experience.”

field trips
Brenda Hernandez and Marianna Cruz, both sixth-graders from Franklin Middle School in Vallejo, Calif., play with an exhibit on pulleys at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

It’s unclear at this point how many other California districts will allocate a portion of the money they receive from the new school funding formula to field trips. For one thing, not all districts will get the same amount of extra money. For another, district needs vary widely. Training on the Common Core State Standards, expanding community engagement efforts and purchasing materials have ranked high on many district plans for how to spend the new money, according to an analysis by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. Many district plans are also unclear, overly ambitious or lacking specifics, according to the January 2015 report.

Related: School librarians a rare find in California public schools

Jay P. Greene, a professor in the school of education at the University of Arkansas, is one of only a few academics to have examined the vitality of field trips. He and his colleagues took advantage of the 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Arkansas, to conduct a study on the effects of a visit to the museum.

In cooperation with the university, Crystal Bridges staff issued field trip dates to 123 schools that had expressed interest in taking a total of 11,000 students to the museum. Half of the schools made the trip in the fall and the second half traveled in the spring. All students and staff were admitted for free.

Students who attended the fall field trip scored higher than their peers who had not yet made the trip on measures of critical thinking, tolerance and interest in visiting a museum again. Students from low-income backgrounds and those from rural areas benefitted the most, Greene said.

“More disadvantaged students have less opportunity to be exposed to cultural activities so they really need the school to do it for them,” he said. “I suspect that the quality of the experience is incredibly important.”

An ideal trip, the Natural History Museum’s Porter said, would include a preparatory visit by the lead teacher, logistical and academic preparation for students and chaperones, and a clear introduction to the exhibits by museum staff. There should also be clear academic goals for students during the visit, like writing observations of the exhibits in a notebook.

Almost none of this preparation happened as part of the Franklin Middle School trip to the Exploratorium. And because it took so long to get there, students only had an hour and 15 minutes to explore the exhibits, less than half the time they spent traveling to and from the museum.

field trips
Taivon Wilson, a sixth-grade student at Franklin Middle School in Vallejo, Calif., waves at a high-speed camera that plays back movements in extreme slow motion during a field trip to The Exploratorium. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Upon walking into the vast warehouse that now houses the Exploratorium, students scattered to play with hands-on exhibits that ranged from shooting a basketball while wearing glasses with slanted prisms for lenses to experimenting with shadows in a room lined with light-sensitive vinyl.

Taivon Wilson, one of the students, pushed a button in front of a screen and watched an extreme slow-motion playback of himself waving and clapping. He said he didn’t know how it worked, but he tried moving slowly, then quickly, to see what the camera recorded depending on his speed. Jasmine Capili, 11, and two classmates listened at tubes that were supposed to separate specific sound waves from the rest. Jasmine said she didn’t know what the tubes were supposed to do. Then, to everyone’s delight, a boy started tapping out a song on the various tubes, playing it like a xylophone.

In another part of the museum, Brenda Hernandez, 12, and Mariana Cruz, 11, worked at a table covered in wheels and elastic bands. They were making an elaborate pulley system meant to spin a wheel with an umbrella on it and make the umbrella flare out. They figured out that using tighter bands worked better if they wanted the umbrella to spin fast.

Soon, it was time to go.

Related: Will ‘creative’ and ‘hands on’ summer school foster a love of learning?

A week after the trip, Holt listed nearly every item on Porter’s list, without prompting, as something she would like to do in preparation for her next trip.

“If we could prepare them for the activity so they know what they’re going to see, it would be better,” Holt said. “We didn’t have a lot of info [this year]. I think we could have done a much better job at getting the kids ready.”

“It was all about, ‘take us places where you take your kids, Dr. Bishop.’”

Back on the bus, returning to school, there was a fart-noise making contest in the back. In the front, two boys sat glumly by a teacher in anticipation of getting suspended for jumping the subway turnstiles when they couldn’t get their subway tickets to work. And asked if they’d learned anything, most students shrugged and returned their attention to their smart phones and each other.

It was not abundantly clear that the trip had been a success. Certainly, no one was excitedly explaining how she’d just had an insight into how sound waves work; nor going on about the properties of simple pulleys; nor plotting the invention of an improved slow-motion camera

Then, Greene said specific new knowledge is only one part of what students get out of a field trip. The other part, much harder to measure, is greater cultural awareness and broader horizons.

Jake, the student from the alternative high school, had a similar reason for thinking field trips were important.

“If we were going to go on a field trip they should probably be to places where it’s showing us what’s beyond school,” he said. “Once you’re done in school, there’s still a whole other lane you need to move into and I feel like they need to bring that into people’s vision.”

Though Holt considered her inaugural Exploratorium trip to be an overall success, she said she’s determined that her students will have a much improved field trip experience next year. Thanks to the input of students like Tiffany and Jake, she will have that chance. And so will her students.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

*Correction: The field trip attendance numbers listed for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County only include students.

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