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Resources come to where the kids are

Catholic schools taking a different approach to modern field trips

Published: November 10, 2014      
Dwain Hebda
Officer Tommy Norman, a graduate of St. Mary School in North Little Rock, shows off handcuffs to students at North Little Rock Catholic Academy during the school’s First Responders Day, Sept 26.

In her many years shepherding North Little Rock Catholic Academy and the former St. Mary School, principal Denise Troutman has never lost one of her little lambs, but she found one once. On a field trip one year, counting noses yielded all of the students and one extra, confused and scared little boy.

“You always worry about sending children off on a field trip,” Troutman said. “You never know what can happen. I was never fully at ease until we got everybody back.”

Those outings, educational though they may be, are for a growing number of Arkansas’ Catholic schools becoming a thing of the past and with them much of the stress and logistical work that came along for the ride. Instead, school administrators and teachers are casting a more creative eye toward bringing outside educational opportunities on-site. Many of them needn’t look far.

“In some case, teachers suggest visitors, but quite often, organizations are sending information to us,” Troutman said. “A lot of groups and organizations are actively looking to come into the classroom to talk to students.”

Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools, said the focus on stay-at-home field trips intensified this year. While diocesan policies have been in place for some time to provide a framework for field trips and help mitigate potential liabilities, a review of schools’ actual practices showed many of the policies were misunderstood or misinterpreted, resulting in hit-and-miss enforcement.

“This is absolutely not about doing away with field trips, that’s not what we’re saying,” Bowen said. “This is about following the rules we already have in place.

According to the diocesan guidelines, field trip drivers should have at least $100,000 in liability car insurance coverage, must be Virtus trained and have had a background check. Bowen said the background check alone has helped some schools because parents with past DUI charges have volunteered for field trips.

Several pages of paperwork is required for the student and the driver. Bowen said she wants schools to make sure they aren’t cramming all the trips into the last month of school and each trip is educational. Principals should not approve any trips that aren’t built around the curriculum, Bowen said. Any overnight trips must be first approved by Bowen.

In meetings with principals in July, Bowen encouraged the administrators to think creatively about what was available in the community and consider bringing those resources in rather than suffer the headaches that come with recruiting drivers, arranging transportation and in some cases, taking on considerable extra cost.

For Troutman, the move toward staying on campus for educational and even social activities was welcomed. She saw firsthand how much easier it was to schedule something in-house five years ago when the decision was made to hold the school’s traditional end-of-the-year party in the gym and on the grounds rather than go elsewhere.

“There just aren’t as many hoops to jump through,” she said. “There’s sometimes a cost involved, but it’s often very minimal. That’s important to a cost-conscious school like ours that’s trying to keep tuition down. And the kids don’t know the difference, especially in the younger grades.”

The academy averages two educational visitors a month. So far this year, highlights have included a First Responders Appreciation Day, featuring North Little Rock fire, police and EMT personnel and vehicles, and the North Little Rock Catholic Academy Pumpkin Patch, which created a pick-your-own pumpkin patch in the gym for the lower grades. Future guests will include a local TV weatherman and visitors from the Little Rock Symphony Orchestra and Little Rock Ballet.

It’s not just Central Arkansas schools that are finding many local resources for sponsoring on-campus educational visitors. Dr. Karen Hollenbeck, principal of St. Boniface School in Fort Smith, said west Arkansas also has a lot to offer.

“It’s helpful to be tied in to the local community,” she said. “The internet, the newspaper, local television stations and just word of mouth are all great ways to learn about events that are happening all around us.

“Last week, mystery author E.A. Allen visited our upper grade students to talk about the writing process. For over an hour, he fielded questions ranging from how he develops his characters to why a rough draft is important. This was a wonderful learning opportunity that brought in a presenter from outside.”

Hollenbeck said parents are very supportive of both off-site and on-campus educational events. She adds, the school hasn’t entirely cut out field trips even if takes some additional effort to coordinate.

“We keep some of the most important field trips, things that have a very big impact on our students,” she said. “One such example is the Million Children Pray the Rosary trip that all of the Fort Smith Catholic school students take in October, where we all meet together at the Convention Center to pray. It is a very powerful experience to gather children for the purpose of prayer and even though getting four entire schools to a separate location is a huge logistical undertaking, it is well worth doing.”

In other situations, the educational opportunity is just too good to pass up, like an exhibit currently going on in Fort Smith featuring replicas of two of Christopher Columbus’ three ships on the Arkansas River.

“Talking and reading about Columbus’ ships and visiting a replica where you can climb down into the cargo hold are two very different things,” Hollenbeck said. “For very special field trips like that, we must find ways that we can take students to the outside location.

“Truly educational field trips, which offer instruction outside the classroom, give students a depth of experience that can’t always be offered in the school setting.”

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