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School Trips Go Commercial

by Marcia Biederman, Jul 06, 2004
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In the final weeks of the school year, nobody feels like working hard. That could be why lawmakers in Albany left for vacation without agreeing on a way to provide a "sound, basic education" to New York City's schoolchildren by July 30, as a court has ordered.

While state leaders failed to agree on a politically palatable school financing plan that would aid not-so-needy upstate and suburban school districts as well as New York City, some city schools found their own ingenious solution to funding woes.

With the blessing of the city Department of Education, more than 50 city public schools this past school year took field trips to Petco and Sports Authority stores to hear employees speak on such topics as animal habitats and the importance of exercise. A number of these schools visited the stores repeatedly, taking different groups each time.

Just last month, as lawmakers wrangled over ways to take educational spending meant for New York City and spread it over the state, 13 groups of city elementary and middle school students visited Petco stores in Manhattan, Staten Island and Queens. In Manhattan alone, four Petco outlets played host to 68 school groups this past year. Most were from the public schools, according to the San Diego-based company.

Why would New York teachers take a class to Petco rather than a museum or a zoo?

"Schools with bigger budgets might visit a zoo or an art museum. For a school with no budget, a trip to Petco costs nothing except for transportation," said Shawn Underwood, a Petco spokesman.

That is less of an advantage here than in other cities, but an advantage all the same. To be sure, New York City school groups get free admission to the Bronx Zoo, But the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn charges $5.25 per child. Even the Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park zoos charge school groups $1 per child.

Moreover, free admission to the Bronx Zoo means a teacher-led tour with no frills: areas like the Butterfly Zone and Children's Zoo cost extra. At Petco, store staff rolls out the red carpet. Kids can pet birds, handle reptiles and take home a goody bag crammed with Petco tatoos and frisbies.

The trips are the brainchild of an educationally savvy Chicago marketer, Susan Singer, who arranges them through her Web site, complete with lesson plans said to fulfill national learning standards.

Singer said she's been working with New York City schools for more than three years. Lately, she said, momentum has been building, and a new learning destination for the city's public schoolchildren will debut in fall: Waldbaum food stores.

Elsewhere in the nation, critics have questioned the educational value of such expeditions and deplored their commercialism. In April, a Buffalo Public Schools spokesman told the Buffalo News that approval of such jaunts would be unlikely there except for students studying business.

The New York City Department of Education has no such compunctions.

When asked about the Petco and Sports Authority expedition, the department issued this statement: "School trips should have an educational focus and be viewed as an extension of the curriculum and learning environment. The fact that there may be a tangential commercial component of a trip would not require that it be banned."

Indeed, an assistant principal at an elementary school in Queens, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the education department was encouraging schools to take the trips to Petco and Sports Authority.

Could the "Furs, Fins and Feathers" trip to Petco - its name on the Field Trip Factory Web site - be the city's solution for schools with no science labs? In many middle schools, eighth graders must prepare for the standardized state exam in science by sharing microscopes. Often water needed for experiments comes from the drinking fountain down the hall.

That might explain why the city's scarce supply of school buses are apparently used as conveyances to Petco. Jennifer Escobar, the operations manager of the Union Square Petco store, said some public schools pull up to her store in yellow buses - often hard for schools to secure for trips to museums and concerts.

The New York City Department of Education, which used a shady bidding process to give Snapple exclusive rights to sell its products in schools, can't be expected to have the compunctions of Buffalo's school district.

With the Field Trip Factory set to add Waldbaum's tours to its destination list - Singer said eight New York schools have already gone out-of-state for her company's supermarket trips, which focus on nutrition - city museums and zoos may find it hard to compete.

Not only are the trips free, but arrangements are streamlined. "We try to make it seamless," Singer said. Contrast that with the school group rules at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Groups from New York City schools get into the Met for free, but the museum's Web site carries stern warnings about chaperoning requirements, limits on the number of visits per school, and a minimum 12-week wait for reservations.

The Queens County Farm Museum also offers opportunities for city kids to pet animals and learn about their needs. The museum's executive director, Amy Fischetti, said her nonprofit facility could not survive without charging school groups admission fees, ranging from $2 to $8, depending on the program. She declined to comment on the Petco tours. However, she did say, "We'd rather see the schools coming to us."

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.

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