Pre-k students at Momot Elementary School in Plattsburgh used to take field trips to Country Dreams Farms to meet real farmers and see where food comes from.
PLATTSBURGH — Apples don’t come from grocery stores, they come from trees.
Oftentimes, those trees are part of a greater mechanism, called a farm.
The connection, from apple to tree to farm, seems simple, even obvious.
But Mary Ward, teacher for the targeted pre-kindergarten program at Momot Elementary School in Plattsburgh, is afraid not enough kids have the resources available to help them connect those dots.
Her program targets low-income families, some of whose children might be deprived of opportunities other kids have.
“A lot of the students think food comes from the grocery store, so we take them into the back of a grocery store so they can see how the food gets into the store,” Ward said. “Then we go to a farm that grows the food we see in the grocery store.”
The field trips have been an essential supplement to her curriculum, which focuses on social studies and how various elements within a community are interconnected.
With the latest round of voter-approved budget cuts, establishing those connections has become increasingly difficult in the City of Plattburgh school district.
The budget cuts have made field trips a thing of the past, along with the Odyssey science program and assistant coaching positions.
“Field trips are especially important for young kids,” Ward said. “Their brains are developing and they’re still sorting out reality and fiction.”
Ward’s teaching technique is to nurture that sorting process by having her students learn about topics like farming from books and classroom instruction, and then taking them to see the real thing.
“We’d do things like study the different homes and shelters people live in, and then go to a building supply store,” Ward said. “They’d see a knot in the wood and realize that’s where a branch was, they’d see tools and realize that’s what people use to build, they’d see a forklift and learn about how machines help us.”
Ward said some things, like a garden, can be used to illustrate concepts on school grounds, but it isn’t the same as bringing her students into the world.
“We use the garden as much as we can, but it isn’t the same as seeing the fields,” Ward said. “At a farm, they can also talk to the farmer. That is hard to replicate.”
Sarah Castle-Hackett, who runs Green Earth Daycare in Plattsburgh, has been on several of Ward’s field trips with her son, Aidan, who finished kindergarten last spring.
“It’s interesting how much of an impression the field trips leave,” Castle-Hackett said. “Whenever Aidan says he’s going on a field trip, one of my day care kids, Xavier, says he remembers it. He’s still excited about it five years later.”
Castle-Hackett said she thinks Aidan benefitted greatly from the field trips and by going along, Castle-Hackett said she was able to make some connections, too.
“It really helps create a community out of the pre-k kids,” Castle-Hackett said. “I got to see how the teachers interact with the students, which gives a better perspective on what they’re doing. It’s very personal.”
She added that it also gave her a chance to meet other parents and students.
“Now, when Aidan tells me who his best friends are, I already know them,” Castle-Hackett said.
Aidan had finished pre-k before the budget cuts went through, but it still bothers Castle-Hackett to know that future students won’t have access to this type of learning.
“They’re still doing the walking field trips, but that isn’t enough,” Castle-Hackett said. “I can’t believe they cut this program.”
This year’s budget cuts came with some heavy sacrifices, and the decisions weren’t easy.
“After that first budget was rejected, we had to go back to the drawing board,” Plattsburgh City School Superintendent James Short said. “We didn’t want to cut anything.”
The original $38.3 million spending plan would have exceeded the school district’s tax cap of 3.01 percent by more than 2 percent.
After being voted down 1,365 to 729 May 15, the school board proposed a spending plan of $37.8 million, which carried a tax-levy increase of 2.84 percent.
The budget passed by a vote of 952 to 726 June 19, but it left school officials in a precarious position.
“We had to make cuts in a measured way that wouldn’t prevent students from learning or teachers from teaching,” Short said. “Field trips are extra and carry a level of importance, but in the grand scheme of things we had to ask: ‘Do we cut field trips or do we cut a first-grade teacher?’”
Programs that aren’t mandated by New York state were the first things the school board had to consider cutting under the reduced budget.
Pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten aren’t mandated, but Short, and other board members, saw them as a priority.
“Pre-k and kindergarten have such a fundamental impact on young kids,” Short said. “If we could get the money, we would bring some other programs back. Really, the communities will have to determine what they want to do.”
This story is part one of a three-part series on the Plattsburgh city school district’s budget cuts.