School field trips are an integral part of learning, whether it is an elementary school visit to an aquarium or the ballet, a middle school civics class trip to the state capital or a senior -year trip to Washington, D.C. The time-honored tradition of leaving the classroom to learn in the real world, though, is under a great deal of pressure these days.
Some of that pressure is financial. Given cuts in budgets, it is increasingly difficult for many schools to underwrite the cost of trips or to pay for transportation for otherwise free or sponsored trips. Some pressure is institutional. The rise of mandated standardized testing means that many schools now prefer students to remain in class for test-based instruction rather than take to the road. And in increasingly litigious times, there's also a legal question. Do school trips expose the system and staff to unacceptable levels of liability?
Finally, there's the debate about what is and what is not an appropriate field trip for public school students. That is the question that currently confronts the Hamilton County School Board.
Though the issues surrounding school field trips are broad, the school board's on-going review of policy is prompted — understandably — by a school-sponsored spring break cruise last March to the Bahamas for Signal Mountain students and faculty chaperones. Following that excursion, seven high school teacher-chaperones and 16 students were disciplined for breaking school policy and consuming alcohol. There can be no doubt that the discipline was appropriate.
Any school-based trip that prompts such charges and punishment would be hard to characterize as educational. Unless, of course, the trip was basic training for the alcohol-fueled spring break bacchanals that unfortunately seem to be a staple of the collegiate experience.
Most school field trips, of course, are far tamer affairs than the Signal Mountain High School-sponsored cruise. Indeed, most excursions taken by students here have easily explained educational purposes. The task at hand, then, is for the board to develop a policy that allows academically appropriate trips while banning those that clearly contribute nothing to the educational process. As board members have quickly learned, that's not an easy task.
At least one board member wants to limit field trips to academic competitions or to venues within the county. Others favor a less restrictive policy, but still advocate strong controls on trips by school officials. Another all but says the current rules, perhaps with minor change here or there, are sufficient. Several publicly worry that a policy that allows a small group of students to take expensive, school-sponsored trips to destinations that most students and their parents can only dream about teaches the wrong lesson. There's considerable merit in the later concern.
Superintendent Rick Smith says school administrators will draft new field trip policies and present them to the board for consideration next month. He added that his staff will closely examine new field trip requests more closely now than in the past. Both are sensible albeit temporary approaches to a vexing problem.
AN equitable system-wide policy on field trips is needed. It should include requirements that all trips demonstrably meet educational goals, be age and grade appropriate, adequately address safety and liability concerns, and not discriminate on the basis of student-and-parent ability to pay. Saving field trips and the valuable experiences they provide -- not eliminating them -- should be the board's goal. It can be done, but only if board members put aside their usual bickering to act judiciously and responsibly to craft new rules.