Every year, students from Bentworth Elementary Center in Washington County traipsed through the Carnegie museums of Art and Natural History with the wonder of Dorothy, the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow romping around Emerald City.
The children were amazed at the actual size and texture of paintings they had seen in books, and they pressed their faces against the glass to watch scientists work on dinosaur bones.
“When they walked into these doors, they were the most excited children,” recalled Joy Gazi, the elementary art teacher at Bentworth. “They thought we gave them gold and magic.”
But Bentworth, like many school districts across the state, can no longer afford to pay for the transportation and substitute teachers needed for field trips. And that means students will stay at school unless their teachers can get grants or scholarships to pay for the trips.
“I would be very sad,” said Carlie Pollock, 9, a fourth-grader from Eighty Four, Washington County. “You get to see all these different things, and I’ve never seen them before.”
Because of state budget cuts of nearly $930 million, schools are spending less on field trips, tutoring, curriculum materials and extracurricular activities. Children lose the opportunity to experience culture, history and science firsthand, and nonprofit groups that work with schools lose income. The loss comes when many nonprofits are battered by declining support from the state and, in many cases, from donors, corporations and foundations.
About 55 percent of schools surveyed said they were cutting or eliminating field trips, according to a survey released Sept. 13 by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
“The trend has been that it’s increasingly difficult for students to participate in field trips,” said Annie Prucey, vice president and director of education programs for the Downtown-based World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. “Instead of having four or five options a year with us, now maybe the teacher can come to one thing or two. Some teachers have said they can’t, absolutely, travel off-site this year.”
The council has responded by bringing some programs into schools.
The Carnegie museums of Art and Natural History welcomed 35,913 students on field trips last year. Hearing concerns about fewer trips this year, the museums have intensified efforts to get businesses to cover the cost.
The two museums also began a teacher loyalty program this fall. Teachers may visit for free and bring guests at a discounted rate, as long as it’s not on a field trip.
“So when funding resumes, they can tell their districts what students have been missing,” explained Carnegie museums spokeswoman Kitty Julian.
So far, 236 teachers have signed up.
The Carnegie Science Center hosted 80,000 students and chaperones on field trips last year, but registrations and inquiries about field trips dropped nearly 15 percent in February and March as budgets tightened. That decrease would translate to about a $200,000 drop in revenue.
As a result, the center this school year lowered its admission for students on field trips from $14 to $8 and even lower, to $5, in September and January when trip sales are usually low.
“We’re getting good signs that the offer has been well-received,” said Ron Baillie, co-director of the center.
The Heinz History Center has been charging $5 admission for students on field trips since 2004. The history center attracts 30,000 to 40,000 students a year on field trips.
Andy Masich, president and CEO of the history center, said it has been developing more virtual field trips online. But, he admitted, museum directors across the country worry that such online tours might discourage people from going to the museum.
“There’s nothing that can beat the real experience of seeing the genuine article as touchstones to the past,” he said.
South Side-based ASSET Inc. rents science kits to schools and trains teachers how to use them. The kits contain equipment for hands-on experiments. But the state eliminated its $6.8 million funding for the group, and only 32 of 120 districts in the statewide program have been able to pay for it themselves.
Many teachers have tried to create their own kits and share them among classrooms. Normally, each classroom got its own kit.
“That’s what it’s come to,” said Cynthia Pulkowski, executive director of ASSET.
As a result, ASSET slashed its fiscal 2011 budget from $9.9 million to $8.9 million in fiscal 2012 and cut 15 full-time employees. The group is exploring the use of computers and videoconferencing its teacher training to lower costs.
It also increased the number of volunteers who pack and refurbish the kits. ASSET used 6,000 volunteer hours in 2010, compared with 4,000 in 2009.
Gateway to the Arts gets half its revenue from schools — either from sending artists into the classroom or training teachers. Because of the state budget cuts, Gateway to the Arts has lost a 10-year contract worth $25,000 a year with the Pine-Richland School District and reduced by $6,000 its contract with Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“I’m very worried about it,” said Lisa Hoitsma, executive director of Gateway. “When you hear schools are cutting teachers, you know there’s not much money for cultural arts opportunities.
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