Kids, parents angry over canceled trips

School officials hand off blame at Dunbar Middle

May 23, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Ever since the sixth grade, 14-year-old Whitney Wilburn couldn't wait for the end of eighth grade because, as she explains, eighth-graders "always had fun." She was so excited about the year-end class trips to amusement parks that she had already planned what she would wear.

But now the end of eighth grade is here, and the fun is not.

The administrator overseeing the city's middle schools has issued a directive that all field trips must be educational. So Whitney's school, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle in East Baltimore, has called off long-awaited trips to two amusement parks and a beach -- three months after it started collecting money from kids who planned to go.

"I feel like my child is being punished, and you're not saying why," said Whitney's mother, Lisa Wilburn, who had arranged to take a day off work to chaperone the trip to Six Flags America. "I don't think that it's fair, and I don't think they're being truthful about why they did it."

Because all 20 traditional middle schools in the city are failing academically, the administrator who oversees them, Marilyn Perez, said she needs students engaged in learning until the final bell rings. Perez said multiple schools were affected by her decision, but she could not say how many.

At Dunbar, a series of administrative blunders has led to a situation where students and parents feel betrayed and school officials are passing on the blame about how the trips were allowed to remain on the schedule for months without the required permission from the school system's central office.

The trips were supposed to be an incentive for children to behave well and pass their classes, because those who didn't would have been left home. So distraught were some eighth-graders at news of the cancellations that some started a food fight in the cafeteria, according to several students and parents. Some girls cried.

Whitney, who is headed to Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, wasn't involved in the food fight, but she said she understood what prompted her classmates to lash out. "The trip was a big motivation to us," she said. "What do we have to motivate us now?"

Students collected 128 signatures on a petition they sent to Perez. It reads in part: "We understand that our education is important, but we are children, and children want to have fun. ... Also, in the future, please try to inform us of any other decisions in time to make other plans."

For many of the students, the field trips represented a rare opportunity to leave town. And in a city where many students don't finish high school, eighth-grade graduation carries more significance than it might elsewhere. Dunbar students, already upset about the canceled trips, found themselves coping last week with the shooting of a classmate, who was critically wounded.

Perez's directive brings Baltimore in line with several surrounding counties, which require that field trips relate to what students are learning. In Baltimore County, for instance, year-end destinations include Gettysburg, Annapolis and Fort McHenry.

In March, the Baltimore County school board adopted a new policy outlining "high-risk activities" -- including amusement park rides -- that are prohibited at school-sponsored events. Officials there said the policy grew out of a two-pronged effort to keep children safe and engaged in learning.

"Field trips should be aligned with the curriculum, and going to Hershey Park on a Friday is not aligned with the curriculum," said Michele Prumo, a school system risk manager.

Some parents of Dunbar students said they could understand, if officials wanted to create such a policy for future years. But, they argued, it's not right to promise children something and then take it away.

Dunbar has a tradition of rewarding students with year-end amusement park trips. This year, they were supposed to go to Six Flags on the day of the eighth-grade graduation. The eighth-grade itinerary included Six Flags, Adventure Park USA, and Rocky Point Beach and Park in Baltimore County for a "beach bash."

In a letter sent home by the "eighth-grade team" to parents in February, Dunbar school officials called the excursions "a thrilling, fun-filled farewell package for you and your child to participate in during the last few weeks of their middle school career."

The problem was that middle school principals are now supposed to get Perez's permission before planning any field trips. And Perez said no one from Dunbar consulted her.

Dunbar's principal, Crystal Ashe, said in an interview this week that she didn't know about the trips, either. She said her staff sent letters home without telling her.

"Once I was made aware of the letter, the issue was dealt with internally," she said. "I dealt with the administrator and those who sent the letters out. I wasn't made privy to the letters at all. I didn't see them. I didn't know anything about it. That was dealt with."

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