How BOCES ensure field trips are worthwhile and make them more affordable for school districts

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Field trips were one of the first budget lines to hit the chopping block when school funding tightened during the latest recession.

While they weren't viewed as a frill, field trips were among a handful of non-mandated items that districts could eye for trimming during tough times.

Among school districts that answered a 2010 NYSSBA statewide survey asking how they were responding to New York's state budget crisis, 65 percent expected to trim or eliminate field trips to help balance their budgets. National surveys by the American Association of School Administrators found that, nationally, about one third of districts surveyed eliminated field trips during the 2010-11 school year.

But field trips are staging a comeback. Economic times have improved, and BOCES have developed sophisticated services that can help make booking field trips both economical and academically rewarding.

The Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego (DCMO) BOCES and the Otsego Northern Catskill BOCES, for instance, have collaborated for 30 years on a field trip service that now serves about 35 districts. This cooperative service, or Co-Ser, finds programs eligible for partial reimbursement through the state's Arts in Education (AIE) aid program.

"Trying to make arts and cultural resources more accessible to our students means you want to make them more affordable, as well," explained Diane Aaronson, who manages the Arts in Education program for DCMO BOCES.

The 2016-17 school year saw a marked increase in student trip activity through AIE, Aaronson said. Schools booked students for 225 ticketed events last year, a 12 percent jump from the 201 events booked in the previous school year.

Individual tickets for students were up 15 percent last year, according to Aaronson's figures. Overall admission spending by districts for the visits, before aid reimbursements and excluding transportation costs, was up 24 percent to $140,650.

The net cost per trip can vary widely, depending on the venue and on a district's BOCES aid ratio. The average per-ticket cost for events in the last school year, before aid reimbursements, was $13.09, Aaronson said.

While the arts connections aren't obvious for some venues, many educators find ways to make them meaningful, Aaronson said. She pointed to one popular destination: Howe Caverns, a geologically unique network of underground caves in Schoharie County.

"On the face of it, it's not an arts destination," she said, "but teachers get their creative juices flowing. One school group documented the trip and designed tourism materials. They used media arts and language arts - and certainly, they probably learned about geography, geology and history, too."

The Corning Museum of Glass is another venue with rich opportunities to meld arts education with history and science, Aaronson said, usually making those trips eligible for AIE aid.

The Franklin-Essex-Hamilton (FEH) BOCES, which began offering a field trip Co-Ser about six years ago, capitalizes on the state's "Exploratory Enrichment" aid. Members of the FEH BOCES Instructional Support Services staff take the lead on planning and scheduling the trips, handling billing and reporting paperwork, and making sure local teachers have related curriculum material in hand before and after the trips take place, said Jamie O'Dell, business manager for the BOCES.

Visits through the younger FEH BOCES program, which was approved in 2009-10 with two participating districts and one venue, are on the rise with expanding options, O'Dell said.

The BOCES now has Exploratory Enrichment Co-Ser agreements with four places that focus on science and the natural environment: The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, Pok-O-MacCready Outdoor Education Center on Lake Champlain, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Newcomb and the Paul Smith's College VIC (Visitor Interpretive Center).

While districts spent just $1,200 on the service in 2013-14, seven school districts spent nearly $11,700 last year on the Exploratory Enrichment services at the four destinations. O'Dell estimated that about 226 students attended programs at The Wild Center and about 155 students attended programs at Pok-O-MacCready during the 2016-17 school year.

Some field trip destinations are offering their own grants and financial assistance.

"We've been able to mitigate falling attendance by getting sponsors to help with busing and admissions costs so we can offer scholarships to schools," said Danielle Henrici, director of education for The Farmers' Museum and Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. "That's been huge for us because funding has been cut dramatically around the state and around the northeast for things like field trips."

The museums' recent corporate sponsors for student group programming have included Key Bank and Strategic Financial Services, a Utica-based company, she said. Individual patrons who attended the museums' annual gala in July pitched in another $9,400 to support field trips.

"That will enable us to bring hundreds and hundreds of students here," she said. "It's things like that that really take some of the burden off the schools and the teachers."

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