About 40 first-grade students sit in the shade of a ramada on a hot autumn day at the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning.
They were visiting Camp Cooper for a half-day field trip with TUSD’s Lineweaver Elementary School.
“You know, this is also a classroom,” says camp leader Kellie Sheehan. “The floor is dirty. The ceiling is blue and the walls are different colors of green and brown. And, we have lots of neighbors.”
After hearing from the camp leaders, the children split into two groups to go for a nature hike through the lush desert of the Tucson Mountains on the west side .
The group stops to look at a majestic saguaro with 13 arms.
The camp leader talks with the students about how long it takes for saguaros to grow .
“What would you do if you had 13 arms?” asks group leader Gabe Gerson.
“Play more video games,” a student yells out, earning a few giggles from the rest of the kids.
The children observe the differences between the landscape they were in when they were walking along the wash and when they were walking in the desert. Most notice there were more cacti and fewer mesquite trees outside the wash.
This goes on for the duration of the one-hour trek . Observations are made, questions asked and answered.
Budget cuts, however, and time constraints have made it harder for Tucson-area teachers to give their students out-of-classroom learning opportunities like these.
For the Tucson Unified School District, field trips are planned at the teacher and school level.
Teachers have to fill out paperwork and explain how the trip supports what is being taught in the classroom, find funding and secure transportation.
“We have to be very specific and list standards and objectives to justify any field trip,” said Cindy Smith a fifth-grade teacher at Kellond Elementary. “For example, our Pima Air and Space trip supports our models and design unit we started off the year with and our solar-system learning we are doing now.”
One set of forms teachers have to fill out is six pages long, said Elizabeth Bouwens, a second-grade teacher at Hollinger K-8. And those forms have to be turned in at least six weeks in advance if they plan on using a school bus.
Since there are costs involved — a TUSD bus is $150 and local-attraction entry fees run between $2 and $8 per student — teachers have to find ways to fund their trips.
As an example , it would cost $275 for a class of 25 students to take a bus on a field trip that has an entry fee of $5 each.
Bouwens, who’s been teaching for 24 years, said she takes her class on four to six field trips per year.
“It used to be more — six and sometimes eight — but we cannot afford them anymore,” Bouwens said. “We are lucky at my school to have an active parent association. They do fundraisers and use the money to help us with our trips. ... For other trips, sometimes we don’t get enough, so I pay the difference. ”
To help ease costs, Bouwens tries to find trips that don’t cost anything. For example, Sabino Canyon is not charging for field trips this year, and the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun has not charged in the past.
Parent-teacher organizations are a key element in funding trips, usually covering the costs of transportation. If not, teachers have to rely on parent volunteers to drive.
Families are often asked to pay entry fees, but if they can’t, teachers sometimes pay for it themselves, use tax-credit money or donations.
Costs for a Camp
Cooper field trip are $5 per student for a half-day; $8 per student for a full day and $10 per student for overnight experiences. But Colin Waite, director of the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, said the trips are so important and valuable to a child’s education that he would never turn a group away because it couldn’t afford it.
“Ninety percent of the audience at Cooper is TUSD schools and every TUSD school has Title 1 students, and those are the kids who need it the most,” Waite said. “Their families are not going to the Desert Museum or national parks.
“They have parents working two jobs or don’t make enough to do those things, so when those kids arrive at the center it’s brand new. They may have never been outside of their neighborhood or city. ... If we charged at Cooper what it cost to run programs, we would eliminate our audience. I would never turn away a group because they couldn’t afford it. I would find the funding. We would find a way because it’s that important. It’s the kids who need it most.”
Supporters of field trips say getting students out of the classroom gives lessons real-life context, making learning more enjoyable and successful.
“If you’re learning reading, writing, math in a vacuum that has a curriculum that doesn’t relate to the world they live in, they’re less likely to enjoy and appreciate learning it,” said Waite.
“If you teach a concept in the classroom and you come to Camp Cooper and see it in action — you’re using senses to explore and see wildlife and saguaros are towering over you — there’s this inspiration that happens that makes them more successful.”
Amber Gurney, a parent chaperon on the Cooper trip, wants the real-world experience for her kids.
“I want them to learn real stuff and not just book stuff,” Gurney said.
Because of the economic challenges its families face, the Sunnyside School District places a high value on field-trip opportunities, said Victor Mercado, a Sunnyside spokesman.
“Field trips — whether they are academic, athletic, social or related to the fine arts — offer our kids opportunities to travel to different cities, visit college campuses and interact with students from other districts who come from diverse backgrounds,” Mercado said. “Field trips enrich the student experience at all levels.”