A smaller radius for school field trips

Educators have put some outings on hold, but many families still sign permission slips for adventures beyond school walls.

In the tiny farming town of Okabena, Minn. (population just over 200), the adults sometimes worry that the kids don't get many opportunities to see the larger world. That's one reason why the senior trip - taken in recent years either to Washington, D.C., or New York City - has always been viewed as an important institution.

But this year, after Sept. 11, some of the staff at the town's Southwest Star High School worried that parents would not feel comfortable putting their children on a plane to the East Coast.

So they sent letters home and asked families to choose between New York and one of three Midwestern cities as a site for this year's trip. The results: 38 students out of a senior class of 39 will be heading to New York this spring.

It's proven to be the most popular trip in the little school's history.

"It's not like we're not going to keep an eye on the news, but you can't stop running your life," says Brenda Renczykowski, a Spanish and English teacher and a chaperone for the trip. "This is a historic time. A lot of kids want to see what's going on."

Southwest Star's willingness to go on with the show is not necessarily a typical response. Many schools across the US are cutting back on school trips - citing security, insurance, and logistical concerns caused by the terrorist attacks.

School district 9-R in Durango, Colo., was one of at least nine in the state to announce restrictions on school travel. In Durango, 24 students had been scheduled to head for Europe this winter, but the trip was cancelled last month.

"Although the likelihood of an incident occurring with our students ... is small, were something to happen, the outcome would be catastrophic," said district superintendent Mary Barter in a written release.

She also cited a purely practical concern. "If airline travel were suspended for some reason," she wrote, "we can't send 10 school buses to Europe to bring those students home."

School policies on the travel question seem to range from the very cautious to the very open.

"It's a local decision," says Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "Some districts are forbidding travel outside their own districts, some outside the state, and some just to New York and D.C."

Mr. Carr says it's not possible right now to make any broad generalizations about attitudes toward traveling. "It jumps so much from district to district," he says. "But I don't think most schools are worried about the field trip to the zoo in their local area."

That's not entirely true for schools in New York City, however. There, schools were at first told to cancel all trips. Later, the ban was lifted, but a cautious attitude continues to prevail.

"Even today, we're discouraged from going to Manhattan," says Sheldon Benardo, principal of elementary school PS 86 in the Bronx.

To some extent, he says, it's a position he understands. "Our first job is to protect the kids."

But, he adds, "a complete education includes field experiences," and he fears his students will miss valuable educational and life experiences if too much caution is exercised.

Mr. Benardo says he understands that protecting students in New York - the prime target of the terrorist attacks - presents a particular challenge. But at the same time, he points out, depriving students of what their own city has to offer creates a peculiar frustration, especially in a low-income district with a large immigrant population like the one served by PS 86. Many children from the neighborhood don't regularly make cultural outings with their families.

"People come to New York City from all over the world to access what we have," he says. "How great for my kids to experience it."

James Phair, principal of elementary PS 107 in Queens, understands Benardo's frustration. He's been told to confine his students to trips within their own largely residential district, which means most of the city's cultural institutions remain off-limits.

"It was really devastating to us because trips are really tied into our school curriculum," he says. But right now, he adds, he's not sure he'd feel comfortable sending students too far from their school.

So he's decided to make the best of a difficult situation. The school has several "arts partners" - city arts groups - that they work with, and Mr. Phair is encouraging these partners to visit the school rather than the other way around.

"For a while, we're going to find ways of having the mountain come to Muhammad," he says.

As a parent himself, Phair says he's sensitive to the need parents may have right now to know their children are in a safe place.

But many parents have mixed feelings. Susan DeJarnett's daughter Max is a cellist in the orchestra at Central High School in Philadelphia, and had planned to travel to China with her classmates to perform. Now, all school trips that involve air travel are on hold.

"She's bitterly disappointed, and I was disappointed for her," says Ms. DeJarnett, a law professor at Temple University. "But a little part of me was relieved, too."

For students, thoughts about travel are generally less ambivalent. "I want to get within a block of ground zero and be able to tell people, 'Look, I saw history in the making,' " says Betsy Volk, one of the students signed up for the Southwest Star senior trip to New York. "You're not going to make the world safer by staying home."

Her classmate Kelly Winkler is equally eager to hit the sidewalks of New York, but says that not all the parents in Okabena were so easily won over.

"My mom was all for it, but I know a lot of other parents were not too happy about it," she says. "But then they saw most of the other kids were going, so they let their kids go too."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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