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Schools: Field trips evolve in era when every minute counts

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The field trip to the solar system required a permission slip and $3. It didn’t require any travel, which made it easier for Tim Carnahan, principal at Waccamaw Intermediate School to approve.

The Orbit Earth Expo came to the school with a 16-foot inflatable Earth and a 4-foot inflatable Moon. Students filled the multi-purpose room at the school for hour-long sessions throughout the day.

The Georgetown County School District last month asked principals to list the time their students spend taking tests and the time they spend with activities other than instruction. The survey came at the request of School Board Chairman Jim Dumm, who said he hears concerns about too much testing and about activities that take time away from instruction. “We have to weigh the balance between the two concerns,” Dumm said.

A change in the federal education law gives states more flexibility in the standardized tests it administers. That system is now under review by the S.C. Department of Education. The S.C. Education Oversight Committee, which monitors improvement, also did a survey of testing. It found widespread dissatisfaction and recommended district’s develop an assessment plan that “promotes continuous improvement” with justification for its testing.

Taking the pressure off testing could take some of the pressure off other activities, such as field trips, which school officials say are important to the education process.

“I don’t know how interesting it would be to sit in the classroom all day every day,” Georgetown County Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

During the Great Recession, funds for trips were cut, but Dozier said there are so many resources in the county, such as Brookgreen Gardens and Hobcaw Barony, that schools can use.

And it isn’t just field trips. “You want children to be well-rounded, too,” said Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance. “If these babies don’t get the chance to be children, where will we be?”

The Orbit Earth Expo visits at Waccamaw Intermediate were scheduled to replace art, physical education and music rather than core subjects. “Those are the kind of things you have to do when you try to make sure you have enough instructional minutes,” Carnahan said.

The program was reviewed to make sure it matched the curriculum standards. Trips that don’t match aren’t approved even if they offer other benefits. “We’ve had to rethink some of the things” like visits to theaters in Myrtle Beach, he said.

Eighth-grade is a peak period for testing. At Waccamaw Middle, they can spend up to 28 hours on standardized tests. But they also spend 30 hours a year listening to announcements, according to the survey. “I was shocked,” principal Jamie Curry said.

But no one’s talking about cutting back to make more time for instruction.

Curry said testing has always been an issue in her 22 years in education. “You can’t do away with it completely,” she said, but it’s important to make sure the test data is used to improve learning.

The core subjects are the only ones students need to know, Curry noted. “We want well-rounded children. Arts and sports make those children who they are,” she said. “At middle school, it’s our job to expose them to as many different experiences as we can.”

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