WESTERLY — The future of an annual trip to Washington, D.C., a tradition for Westerly High School sophomores since the mid-1970s, is unclear as the School Committee considers proposed changes to the district’s field trip policy.
The policy modifications, which the School Committee is scheduled to vote on during a meeting scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in Town Hall, were developed by Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau in response to an advisory opinion issued in April by Ken Wagner, who at the time was the state commissioner of education.
Wagner’s opinion caused several districts in Rhode Island to reconsider their field trip policies. The opinion states that districts can fund field trips so long as the trip is part of the instructional program and all students have the same ability to attend; supplemental fundraising for field trips is allowed, but students cannot be mandated to raise money or reach fundraising targets; and individuals can be charged a fee for a trip but only for trips that are not organized by the district using district resources, including district-funded staff time.
On Monday, the teacher who has coordinated the trip to Washington, D.C., for the last 18 years, Anthony Lementowicz, said the trip would most likely not happen this school year and could probably only occur in future years under a new model.
“It looks like the trip, as it has been run historically, can no longer go forward, but I’d like to find a way to keep the tradition of the trip alive by finding a different funding formula,” said Lementowicz, who is the high school’s dean of teaching and learning and head of the school’s Social Studies Department.
While the trip to Washington, D.C., seems to meet academic requirements set out in Wagner’s opinion, other aspects appear to run afoul of the opinion, particularly the section pertaining to fees, district resources and staff time. The Westerly students have taken a four-day, Friday-to-Monday trip each year, with about 12 teachers attending. The Friday and Monday parts of the trip were treated as normal work days for the teachers but the district had to hire substitute teachers to cover for their regular classroom duties. The teachers donated their time on the weekend.
The last trip to Washington, D.C., cost $660 per student, including “any reason” cancellation insurance.
Garceau confirmed that the trip, as it has been organized in the past, would violate the new proposed policy and Wagner’s advisory opinion. “It doesn’t mean that everything has to stop, but it forces us to think about how these things are funded,” Garceau said.
The trip has been offered to all sophomores. Lementowicz said roughly half the class attended most years and financial assistance for the trip was made available to students who sought it out. The aid came from a variety sources, including the school’s Student Council, the teachers’ union, individual teachers and parents. Lementowicz said he was uncertain if students who wanted to go on the trip were unable to due to financial concerns, but he said he followed up with students who made a required deposit but did not follow through on going on the trip.
The trip started in 1976 when the country celebrated its bicentennial. In recent years, the trip has been conducted in April, but it has also been conducted in the fall.
Lementowicz said he has spoken with parents and other teachers about developing a way to make the trip a non-school event that could possibly be run by an outside organization such as a booster group. While a new model for organizing the trip might be developed, Lementowicz said he is doubtful the trip could go forward this school year.
An annual high school band trip to Disney World is organized as an “outside event” by a booster group and occurs during April vacation. The trip can continue under the new proposed policy, Garceau said.
The Washington, D.C., trip, clearly ties to the high school’s curriculum, which requires all sophomores to take a U.S. history and government class, Lementowicz said. While in D.C., students who take the trip visit several memorials, including the Lincoln Memorial and the the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials and they tour the Capitol. They also have a choice of visiting the American History Museum, the Museum of Natural History, or the National Air and Space Museum, and all students visit the Holocaust Museum. Past trips have also included dinner and a show at Kennedy Center.
Students and parents have both voiced disappointment that the trip might be jeopardized, said Lementowicz, who has offered his time to assist those who might take the task of organizing the trip over.
“I wish that every student in the country is able to visit their nation’s capital at least once, regardless of their ability to pay. It is an amazing experience and an impressive place. I’ve seen that in the eyes of my students,” Lementowicz said.