With ongoing budget cuts, many field trips disappeared from students' calendars more than a year ago. In some cases, however, Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools prioritize local trips to keep the students engaged.
"We've seen a downturn overall during the last couple of years but an uptick for local schools during the last couple of years," said Andrea Timpone, executive director of Elachee Nature Science Center. "The schools farther away aren't as likely to expend money for transportation and travel."
First graders at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy took a trip to the center on Wednesday to learn about plants, animals and habitats.
"This snake ate and ate a bunch of food, and when it got tight, he shed his skin," Cindy Andrews, a senior naturalist, told a few students as they touched the dead skin. "Underneath, he has a bunch of new skin. This is how he grows."
The students gasped and giggled as they walked along cages holding turtles, snakes and salamanders. They also took a walk along Elachee's nature trail, discussing plant and animals found in their back yard.
During the past three years, Elachee served about 4,000 fewer students from 26 counties in northern Georgia, with 32,810 students in the 2007-2008 school year and 28,660 in the 2009-2010 school year. During the same time, the center saw an increase of 500 students in Gainesville and Hall County, from 12,182 in 2007-2008 to 12,691 in 2009-2010.
"The most telling part is that the overall numbers also reflect the students we serve at the schools," Timpone said. "Five years ago, about 10 percent of our work was in the schools, but we estimate about 40 percent is now."
The Enota field trip Wednesday was funded through federal grants given to Gainesville City Schools.
"When we look at our priorities for Title 1 funding, we look at science and environmental education, especially experiential education," said Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. "Elachee does an excellent job of customizing their lessons to the state standards for learning in each grade level and making it relevant to where the students live."
Elachee naturalists also do professional learning sessions with teachers to show them how to follow-up on field trips in the classroom and incorporate activities into their units.
"They also come to our standards and assessment work group and model inquiry-based learning," where students learn by asking questions, Dyer said. "They not only work with us on the field trips but all year-long on making our instructions and the standards more meaningful."
More than two years ago, Hall County Schools began limiting field trips to areas within 50 miles of the school and asked for detailed reasons to travel farther.
"Field trips are a vital piece of education because our students need to see the world, but we want to save money and support businesses locally," Superintendent Will Schofield said. "There's the power of being near home and supporting our parents and business partners. It just makes sense."
Hall County Schools are also using more speakers and professionals in the classroom instead of leaving the school.
"If we can bring three people to share their experience
with 500 children, that makes more sense, and we should have been doing it years ago," he said. "With the educational value and bringing in outside experience, local businesses are also realizing the opportunity for a new business model to go into the schools."