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Photo by Nicole Cohen
Liberty students recite the Gettysburg Address on the steps of the Lincoln Memoral.
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Photo by Nicole Cohen
Alongside a bronze George Mason, Teaching Tours founder Randy Wright discusses the Bill of Rights.
It’s a wet, chilly Wednesday morning during the first week of March. A charter bus is positioned in front of Liberty Middle School in Hanover County, as eighth-graders from the school, apparently undeterred by the weather, gather to embark on a trip to Washington, D.C.
The trip is organized by the nonprofit Teaching Tours, started by Randy Wright, who has been teaching civics at Liberty Middle for 24 years. He founded Teaching Tours (teachingtours.org) about a yearago in an effort to provide no-cost field trips to students from local schools and
organizations who can profit most from the opportunity.
Wright contends that many schools today take few field trips of substance, and, choosing the nation’s capital for its historical significance, has built an educational experience around the monuments. “Washington was easy,” he says. “I saw so many kids from the Richmond area who had never been, and I said, ‘Well, we can fix a little bit of that problem.’ ”
Working with local schools and organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Mosby Street and fourth- and fifth-graders from St. Andrew’s School in Oregon Hill, Wright wants the students to benefit from experiential learning. The students visit the monuments in Washington and recite the great documents of American history, such as the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Because many of the students Wright is reaching out to are from impoverished areas, none are charged to attend the trip, and a bag lunch is provided. In addition, the trip always includes a visit to the campus of the University of Mary Washington. Wright says this opens the minds of the students to the possibilities of higher education, adding that many of them have never been to a college campus before.
Budget cuts, increased focus on exams and other factors contribute to a school district’s decision to provide field trips. In a March 2012 study conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, of the 528 school administrators surveyed from 48 states, one-third, or just over 30 percent, said they eliminated field trips in the 2010-11 school year, compared to just over 29 percent in the 2011-12 school year. Looking ahead, the study also determined that just over 43 percent were considering the elimination of field trips for the 2012-13 school year.
It is difficult to quantify the frequency of field trips that are taken, as most school districts do not keep detailed records. There’s also no true definition of what constitutes a field trip. The author of the AASA study, “Weathering the Storm: How the Economic Recession Continues to Impact School Districts” and associate executive director of policy and advocacy for the AASA, Noelle Ellerson says, “Field trips are usually first to be cut, [followed by] altering thermostats [to save heating and cooling costs]; they’re just low-hanging fruit.” Ellerson says the AASA is preparing to conduct another survey within the year, which will ask schools more detailed questions about the elimination or reduction in field trips and the reasons behind it. “It’s just easy to say they were cut for budgetary reasons … but there may be other underlying factors,” she says.
Locally, Henrico’s field-trip frequency has remained steady, says Andy Jenks, the director of communications and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools. “Our elementary, middle and high schools tend to take the same field trips each year related to specific units of study,” Jenks says in an email.
For Chesterfield County Public Schools, field trips are a school-level decision. Director of Community Relations Tim Bullis says in an email, “Due to the financial constraints of the last five-plus years, we have seen a reduction in the number of trips taken.” In Hanover County, “over the past few years, the frequency of field trips has remained relatively consistent,” Hanover County Public Schools spokesman Christopher Whitley says by email.
Requests for information related to the frequency of field trips in Richmond were answered by Cletisha Lovelace, spokeswoman for Richmond Public Schools, who said that gathering the information would require a fee of several hundred dollars.
Jane-Page Watson is the assistant head of school at St. Andrew’s School. She partnered with Wright and Teaching Tours in November, after he contacted her about the program. St. Andrew’s is an elementary school that educates children from families with limited financial resources, providing full scholarships to students whose families’ gross annual income does not exceed approximately 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. A collaboration with Teaching Tours was a natural fit. “We want to expand their knowledge and experience in the world, and to have an opportunity to go to Washington D.C. was a wonderful thing for our kids,” Watson says, noting that this was a first experience for the majority of the children.
Wright hopes that his Teaching Tours are able to give students a chance to see the monuments of D.C. and experience the nation’s history. And for Wright, imitation would be the sincerest form of flattery. During the trip, Reid Attaway from Video Works of Virginia recorded the Liberty students reciting the famous documents of history to be posted on the Teaching Tours website. “It allows [other students] to see what they can do, and then I challenge them and say, ‘Do better than us.’ We want other schools to do what we do and do it better,” Wright says. “The ultimate dream would be [that] we get consistent funding from consistent sources and that we’re able to schedule at least a trip a month every year and that ultimately, we go out of business because schools across the region begin to include field trips in their budget.”