To a typical 11-year-old, there are few things more exciting than getting a day out of the classroom, boarding a bus with your friends, and heading out on a field trip to explore what you've learned in the classroom firsthand. Teachers recognize the value of experiential education, anticipating trips in their lesson plans and referring back to information learned on the outing for months.
If you're a child from a wealthy family or lucky enough to go to an affluent school, you may even take an overnight environmental education trip, go sailing on the Spirit of South Carolina, or visit battlefields and museums. If you're a public school student in Hollywood, Ravenel, or North Charleston, you may never leave the confines of your flourescent-lit, windowless classroom, save for recess and lunch.
For the past three years, that hasn't been the case for Charleston County fourth- and fifth- graders. The roughly $2 million that the county school district receives for "K-5 Enhancement" from the S.C. Education Lottery has funded trips to Drayton Hall (for fourth grade, in the fall) and Patriots Point (for fifth, in the spring) since 2004. That's at a total cost of $120,000, including bus transportation, for roughly 6,200 children ($15 total per child). Students participate in interactive stations with skilled instructors, learning Revolutionary War and colonial history at Drayton Hall. At Patriots Point, in addition to the World War II component aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, half of the trip is composed of hands-on science, including a Department of Natural Resources-sponsored oyster restoration project that includes pH and salinity water testing and the opportunity to learn about salt marsh and estuary animals.
For many students, the excursion is their only field trip of the year. Teachers have responded overwhelmingly to the programs, citing them as highly beneficial to their students' retention of PACT testing material. "I was pleasantly surprised at how well the lessons (Patriots Point) aligned to our science and social studies standards," says Beth McCall, a fifth grade teacher at Whitesides Elementary. "The kids were having so much fun they were barely aware they were learning."
"The timing of the trips is perfect," says Barbara Eager, a fifth grade teacher at the St. Andrews School of Math and Science. "Some activities revisit previously taught items, and others address concepts yet to be taught."
A 2006 survey of 139 fifth-grade teachers whose classes visited Patriots Point found every single one of them answering "Yes" to the question, "Do you think your students' visit impacted their understanding of the subjects and skills mandated by the curriculum standards?"
"Children learn and remember more when they see history and science first hand," says Mary Ashley Cann, a teacher at Burns Elementary.
Despite enthusiastic support of the program by educators, mornings are quiet this fall at Drayton Hall. The school district's new administration, led by Superintendent Nancy McGinley and Chief Academic Officer Randy Bynum, decided in August to allocate the funds for the programs elsewhere.
"We went toward the full implementation of the coherent curriculum (the district's educational master plan), which had the associated printing and development costs of putting that curriculum in the hands of every teacher," explains Bynum. "The other part of the money went to get more teacher coaches into the schools, so we could really push what we've been saying all year, that we want 'Victory in the Classroom.'"
Bynum explains that they hope to revisit the programs when laying out the 2008-2009 budget, "because we do value them." Former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson visited the programs last year, but neither McGinley nor Bynum have seen them in action since assuming their current roles.
A letter sent by the District to the field trip programs in August, just over a month before the Drayton Hall trip would have begun, referred to "funding shortfalls within the (Charleston County School District)" and stated "our students and teachers have enjoyed immensely and benefited academically from the excellent standards-based experiences you have provided."
The district's budget increased this year, from roughly $308 million to $321 million, and K-5 lottery money remained stable at $2 million. Despite that, the programs' administrators say they can accept a lack of funding as adequate reasoning to cancel the trips, but subsequent comments allegedly made by Superintendent McGinley have led to speculation that money may not have been the ultimate deciding factor.
"She (McGinley) told me that the money had come down, but that they were using it for other things," says school board member and former U.S. Congressman Arthur Ravenel, Jr. "She said they did not think the trip (specifically to Patriots Point) was a meaningful education experience. She did admit that the kids enjoyed getting the day off."
Patriots Point board member Susan Marlowe also met with McGinley and was told that "they didn't feel like the trip addressed enough of the standards in an in-depth way."
When asked about those statements, McGinley issued City Paper this statement via e-mail: "I think it's great for students to learn more about American history, especially in ways that enrich the learning experience and bring to life the lessons that are taught in the classroom. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where our funds are limited, whereas our goal, excellence for every child in this county, is not. So we've had to make some really tough budget decisions, including channeling money into high-need areas: high-quality teaching and the coherent curriculum of the Charleston Plan for Excellence. With all of that in mind, it's important to note that I've never closed the door on this program. We think it's a good idea and look forward to figuring out financially creative ways that we can return to Patriots Point."
Although it's impossible to draw a direct correlation between a field trip and standardized test scores, PACT test scores have improved in Charleston County since 2004. The most significant jumps this year came in social studies and science, the two areas covered by the field trips. At both Drayton Hall and Patriots Point, students begin the day with a pre-test, carry a clipboard throughout the stations with their instructors, and take a post-test at the end to measure retention.
"We hit three of the four sections they study in fifth grade, using interactive labs, and we show teachers new ideas of how to use their lab kits in the classroom," says Keith Grybowski, founder of the Charleston Explorers nonprofit that operates the science programs at Patriots Point. "We're able to tie it all in to a one-hour production around a central issue, Charleston Harbor."
Although privately scheduled programs continue, Ned Forney, director of education at Patriots Point, laments the loss of a fruitful partnership with the district. "Our program follows curriculum guidelines and reinforces what children learn in the classroom," says Forney, pointing out that the trip also includes the chance to meet and speak with WWII veterans, a fleeting opportunity. "Why does one letter say you have an excellent standards-based experience, while the superintendent says something totally different?"
The $120,000 being invested in the classroom will hopefully improve the quality of Charleston County's young people's learning environment, but teachers and field trip program staff hope they can bring the trips back next year. "If we don't, this year's fourth-graders will have two full years of not getting this experience at all," says Drayton Hall's Rikki Davenport. "Getting students excited about history goes a long way in their education, and experiencing life as it was in colonial times gives history relevance in their lives."
Of the 49 schools that visited Drayton Hall last year, 29 were Title One schools. Only 6 of the 49 have privately booked and self-funded the trip this fall. Sue Miller, a fifth-grade teacher at Hursey Elementary in North Charleston, wrote to Patriots Point when she heard the trip had been canceled: "My students come from an impoverished background and often lack the background knowledge they need to raise their test scores. They also tend to not have the parents that would likely take them on a trip of this sort. As a result, they will hugely lose out."
If the district's stance doesn't change, the programs hope to raise the money through grants and corporate donations to continue providing trips for every student.
"We can get all the kids we want from rich schools, because this is a quality program," says Patriots Point's Grybowski. "The beautiful thing about it was that this is one of the few programs that every kid could participate in, regardless of their economic advantages."