Schenectady County

School budget cuts hit field trips

There was no apple picking for Niskayuna first-graders this fall.

There was no apple picking for Niskayuna first-graders this fall.

The popular field trip to a local orchard fell victim to budget cuts and a new policy that stresses academics over fun. Apple picking didn’t make the cut.

“It’s fun. There’s some educational value to it, but it doesn’t tie into or relate at all to first-grade curriculum in any way, shape or form,” said Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio.

Over the past two years, the district has cut approximately $30,000 for student field trips from its budget. Last May, the superintendent appointed a committee consisting of principals and members of the PTO, which met in September and October to develop criteria on whether a field trip is worth the cost. The trips cost more than just transportation and admission for students; there’s also pay for substitute teachers to cover for staff members who are on the trip, she said.

The new criteria for evaluating trips includes the cost, the amount of class time lost and whether the instruction cannot be provided in school.

“Fun” field trips will fall victim to this new policy. One example Salvaggio cited is a trip the music groups have taken to Massachusetts. The students would go to a juried music competition and then spend the rest of the day at Six Flags amusement park. In another trip, students would spend the day sightseeing in New York City and then go to a Broadway show.

Salvaggio is working with the Friends of Music Club to find a different way of doing a trip more closely tied to curriculum.

There are also recommendations on the types of field trips for the different grade levels. Elementary and middle school students should take no more than three trips a year, travel not more than 75 miles and generally have out-of-pocket costs less than $50 annually per child and not exceeding $100. High school students should also not take more than three trips but there are no cost or distance limitations.

Principals will develop an annual field trip plan with help from staff and parents.

Saturday, with parents

The new policy will result in fewer field trips and they will be more likely to happen on Saturday than on a school day, with greater use of parent chaperones.

Salvaggio said about a half-dozen people have met with her individually to lobby for their favorite field trip. She said she wants to honor the tradition of taking some of these trips. The district also could explore alternative funding, such as through BOCES.

Salvaggio said the eighth-graders probably will go on their end-of-year trip — celebrating their graduation from middle school — even though those are fun trips to places like Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Board of Education President Jeanne Sosnow said the school PTOs are interested in helping preserve trips. “I think they’re going to be creative in how they can work with the schools to help some of those important trips to continue,” she said.

Some school districts have eliminated all field trips, Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District for instance.

C-R Superintendent Lynn Macan said, “For us, even going to Proctors is close to a 100-mile round trip.”

Last year, field trips were limited to one per grade level, Macan said. The district has gotten creative and done some walking trips to nearby facilities such as SUNY Cobleskill. And students have gone fly-fishing at local creeks. “There are some good natural resources in the vicinity of some of our schools that we try to take advantage of.”

educational value

The Greater Amsterdam School District also has stayed close to home with local trips to Adirondack Animal Land in Vail Mills or St. Mary’s Hospital to “adopt a grandparent,” Superintendent Thomas Perillo said.

Perillo said most trips funded by general revenues have been eliminated altogether. The remaining trips are paid for with some type of grant funds, such as the state Contract for Excellence money Amsterdam receives as a high-needs district.

Many of the remaining trips relate to the theme of the magnet elementary schools. For example, the Marie Curie Institute of Engineering and Computing school will travel to places to see engineering in action.

“Any time there’s a field trip, there has to be an educational and instructional rationale to go,” he said.

Scotia-Glenville initially canceled all field trips for this school year, but Superintendent Susan Swartz said the district was able to restore funding when it closed its books for the 2010-11 year. “We were in a little better shape than we thought,” she said.

The fifth-graders are taking their fall adventure trip to destinations such as Frost Valley in the Catskill Mountains and Camp Chingachgook on Lake George for hiking and other outdoor fun.

The principals are compiling their lists in conjunction with the teachers. Swartz said she spreads the available dollars across grade levels.

The Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District has slashed field trip funding by $1,000 at all of its buildings — reducing it to $1,600 per elementary school and $1,200 for middle school and high school, according to spokeswoman Christy Multer.

The district has been cutting back the last two years, Multer said. Like Niskayuna, school officials are looking for trips that support the curriculum. “It’s not for socializing,” she said.

For example, high school students taking an advanced placement environmental science course have taken trips to Ballston Lake to test water quality. Cooking students have visited the culinary arts program at Schenectady County Community College.

Elementary students have taken trips to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts to learn about colonial history. Parents paid fees for those trips.

At the Farmers’ Museum, students get a chance to be a blacksmith for an hour or cook using traditional methods. “They’re getting a hands-on lesson that they won’t soon forget because it’s so unique,” Multer said.

New York State School Boards Association spokesman Brian Butry said he is not surprised that districts are cutting back on field trips, given the tight budgets over the past two to three years.

“Every little bit helps when you’re talking about teaching jobs and trying to save classroom programs — whether it be a sport or a club or other extracurricular activity.”

Given the focus on academics, school districts have to give field trips a greater level of scrutiny, according to Butry. He believes field trips have an educational purpose. “I think it gets kids out there and see the application of what they’re learning in the classroom out in the real world,” he said.

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