A nonprofit program that teaches character-building and environment appreciation to thousands of Maryland sixth-graders each year has been forced to start charging students for their week on the Chesapeake Bay as a result of the state's budget cuts.
According to George Custom, executive director of the North Bay Adventure program, what was a $1.7 million allocation in state funds as recently as two years ago has been slashed to $600,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.
Custom said that North Bay, located on 89 acres in Cecil County near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, is geared toward students "who don't have access to programs such as ours."
Previously free for school programs, Custom said that the average cost is around $350 per student, with $150 of it still subsidized by the state. School districts with students interested in the program are having to find other ways to finance the remainder of the cost. Some districts are opting for similar programs closer to home that won't cost as much. Many are seeking grants from other nonprofit foundations or trying to be creative with school fundraisers.
"Our goal is not to have the cost fall back on the students" and their families, Custom said in a recent interview.
Custom said that his program, which is funded through the Erickson Foundation, is trying to help school districts and individual schools find the necessary resources to keep sending children to the Cecil County location for one week a year. One of those sources, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, offers between $750,000 and $1 million annually in grants for educational programs, according to its spokeswoman, Alicia Levy.
North Bay officials are hopeful that the budget cuts won't hurt the program's success in educating as many as 10,000 students in a given year, but educational director Keith Williams acknowledges that there hasn't been a consistent number of students each week. While one week the program might be at the capacity of around 350 to 375 students, the next week there might be as few as 100 students, Williams said.
Some schools, such as Catonsville Middle School, are considering charging students between $150 and $200 each (depending on whether buses are used) while generating the rest of the money through school fundraising events.
Assistant Principal Michelle Feeney, who oversees the school's participation in the program, said that "we have some families that can afford it and some that can't." The Baltimore County school has received money for about 10 scholarships from some families and is raising money by selling lawn chairs that people can use at the town's Fourth of July fireworks show.
Feeney said that the program is so well-received by the school's families that "I have parents who want to go back [as chaperones] who don't even have kids in the school" and is so popular among students that "when they write their memories as eighth-graders, they write about going to North Bay."
Custom, Feeney said, has "really tried to work with the schools. He's really been fantastic," adding that North Bay employees have come back to Catonsville Middle School for assemblies and to lead peer support groups. Feeney said that going to North Bay "sets the tone for the rest of their middle school years."
Williams said that most of the school districts that have sent students since the program began are continuing to do so. One exception this year was the Allegany County school district, which includes four middle schools.
Mia Cross, spokeswoman for the Allegany County Public Schools, said the sixth-graders, who earn 20 service learning hours, will spend the week at Rocky Gap State Park in Cumberland.
"I haven't talked with anybody, but the sense I get is that people were disappointed," Cross said. "The two groups of sixth-graders who went to North Bay really enjoyed it."
Cross added that the trip to North Bay was often "the first time many of these kids had been outside the borders of Allegany County."
Williams is hopeful that most school districts will find a way to pay for the trip to the upper Chesapeake Bay site.
"Most of the schools are applying for grants," Williams said. "We are working with the schools to point them in the right direction. We want to make sure that the students get a good experience and that the closer they get to the Chesapeake, it will have a positive effect on them and their environment."