January 23, 2019

Are school trips worth the cost?

  • Sixth-Grade Trip to Catalina: $400
  • Senior Trip to Poland and Israel: $4,000
  • Educational Value: Priceless

Milken Community High School 11th-grader Rebecca Suchov considers her elementary and middle school trips to Colorado, Arizona and Washington, D.C., — and any number of local weekend retreats — as some of her most formative experiences, so she expected a lot from her four months in Israel with Milken last spring. But she never anticipated just how lasting the impact would be.

“Before I left, my mom told me I’d come back changed, more mature, and I thought ‘OK, whatever.’ But I never felt so much more grown up, or so much more alive, like I know what is going on with the world. I feel like a completely different person,” said Suchov, who was one of 40 10th-graders to participate in Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship in the program’s inaugural year last spring.

That response is just what educators are looking for when they offer students out-of-classroom experiences to augment what they learn from lectures, projects and textbooks. Those trips — ranging from a few nights of local camping to pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to overseas travel — have become part of the curriculum at most Jewish schools and at other independent schools.

“Families are going to Jewish day schools because they can get these kinds of experiences,” said Larry Kligman, middle school director of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “There is no question that the kids are more confident, that they have a stronger Jewish identity and that the classroom experience is more beneficial for them because they have these trips, these journeys and adventures.”

But the trips also pose challenges to schools and families. Schools often subsidize the trips and offer assistance to families who can’t pay, but for parents already struggling to pay day school tuition — ironically, cutting their own travel budgets, among other areas — trips bring added pressure, especially with everyone-else-is-going guilt from kids. And administrators concede that some families opt out of the trips because of cost — anywhere from $100 for a Shabbaton to thousands for an Israel trip — widening the economic divide already present in schools.

Other trips are selective, bringing only a small group, leaving others behind and perhaps resentful. Some parents also complain that the educational content on some of these trips is minimal.

“The bottom line that we have to be asking ourselves is: Does it fit into our curriculum? Is it something the family could do on their own or something the school can uniquely provide? And is it something we can offer at a reasonable cost? And that — the reasonable cost — that has become an issue, as far as I’m concerned,” said Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Academy in West Hills. “I want to make sure we are not falling into this trap of taking trips because everyone else is doing it.”

Gereboff said she and her staff are opening up a conversation about exploring less costly, more local alternatives to the Washington, D.C., or New York trips her middle schoolers take.

Kadima and the newly merged Kadima-Heschel West Middle School won’t be doing away with the trips, she emphasized. Like most educators, Gereboff sees great value in kids learning in a hands-on, natural context, and in building bonds with each other and with staff in a way that doesn’t happen in the school building.

“Is it a luxury? Absolutely. But given the range of luxuries these kids are exposed to, I think it’s a good one,” said Madeline Levine, a Marin County psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege” (HarperCollins, 2006). “Even though it does require financial scraping for most of us parents, I think it is a better place to spend our money than on more hors d’oeuvres at the bar mitzvah. Most parents and kids spend resources on stuff — material goods — and I like the notion of spending money on an experience that is enriching in some way.”

In fact, taking kids out of a homogeneous middle-class environment can be good for suburban kids, says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner, 2001).

“I think our students in L.A. are a little bit bubble-wrapped, and so these trips give them an opportunity to wet their feet in life a little more,” Mogel said. “My experience in talking to kids is that they love these things, and one of the reasons they do is because they are kind of nature- and culture-deprived.”

Lina Suchov, Rebecca’s mom, says she jumped at the chance to have Rebecca go on Tiferet, which included intensive classroom study, interaction with Israeli teens and their families, and trips all over Israel. Having seen her three children — now 16, 17 and 20 — go on school trips through Milken and Heschel, Suchov is sold on their value.

“All the trips were a culmination of their studies, so it made a lot of sense to put into practice the concepts they had learned,” Suchov said. “I really believe in experiential learning — they come away with a good sense of purpose of the trip and how it applies to their studies, they make new friends, they see their teachers in a casual environment, and they get used to the idea of separating from their parents,” she said.

Most schools start trips in fifth or sixth grade, with local adventures that involve camping or a science component and usually cost in the range of $200-$500.

Kadima sends its fifth-graders on a science-oriented trip, such as Astrocamp. Seventh-graders in the newly merged middle school will take a social studies trip to New York — a change from Kadima’s usual Catalina camping trip. Students will get that outdoor experience, including challenging hikes and a few days in tents, on a sixth-grade science adventure in Washington state.

“We want them to try things they never thought they could do and come out of it feeling empowered,” Gereboff said.

A group of Kadima-Heschel West middle schoolers visit a sister school in Israel every year. Eighth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and spend months before the trip researching the sites they visit so they can serve as tour guides for their peers.

Gereboff said that trip will be on the table as the school explores whether kids might get the same benefit from a trip in the American Southwest, for example.

That would be a tough trend to buck, since eighth-grade trips to Washington or Israel have became standard in most Jewish day schools.

Heschel, in Northridge, used to offer eighth-graders the opportunity to go to both Washington and Israel, on an exchange program with a sister school in Tel Aviv. For kids who opted for both, that meant missing three or four weeks of school and paying $5,000.

So in the last few years the school has beefed up the East Coast trip with stops in New York and Philadelphia, and asked eighth-graders to choose between Israel and East Coast — an approach that so far has been successful, according to middle school principal Kligman.

At Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, eighth-graders traditionally go to Israel at the end of the year. Last year, parents had to pay only $600 for the trip, because of a fundraising concert and other efforts.

At some schools, the kids do much of the fundraising on their own.

“It teaches the kids honesty and responsibility,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, where eighth-graders raise money for their Washington, D.C., trip by selling challah and flowers at carpool line every Friday, running a snack bar after school, and countless other small fundraisers. A percentage of the money they raise goes to charitable causes.

Even with the fundraising, eighth-grade parents are usually left with a bill of more than $1,000 at Hillel, and up to $2,500 at other schools. Some kids contribute their own babysitting money or savings, and schools often offer payment plans and scholarships where necessary. Others roll the price of the trip into tuition. Occasionally, a few administrators admit, kids end up not going because it costs too much.

The stakes are even greater in high school.

Shalhevet’s senior trip to Poland and Israel costs $4,000, with aid available. New Community Jewish High School takes kids to Israel.

YULA tries to achieve the bonding and memory building at a lower cost. Last year, the senior boys went river rafting on the American River and visited San Francisco. The boys earned money for the trip by building sukkahs and running the student store. To cover the rest, the kids contributed $100 for the trip — a sum administrators felt the boys could earn themselves without having to tap into already taxed parental funds.

Milken Community High School holds trips for every grade, and often specific language, science or social studies classes take other trips. In addition to weekend Shabbatons, freshman go to Yuma, Ariz., and other grades go on rafting trips, exchange programs with schools in Tel Aviv or Mexico City, or social justice trips, such as to post-Katrina Mississippi. For the past few years in April, a growing number of seniors have been traveling to Israel and Poland with thousands of other teens from around the world to take part in the annual March of the Living.

“We see this as an exciting, engaging and educationally fruitful way to get our students into their Jewish identity and Jewish learning, and to bring the outside world into relationship with their Jewish identity,” said David Lewis, dean of student life at Milken. “This gets the kids off the hill in Bel Air and gets them into the real world.”

For kids who don’t like to or can’t travel, local options are usually available.

Mogel, who next year will publish her book about teenagers, “The Blessing of a B-” (Scribner), says that a graceful way out is important for kids who are not developmentally ready to take on a big camping trip or the commotion of an Israel trip.

“Our new philosophy of education is ‘the more, the earlier, the better,'” she said. “Better to think about readiness. For many students, these school trips provide a vista broader than their usual haunts, exciting opportunities and lifelong memories — but so can less-glittering adventures.”