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Marc Fisher

A Class Trip Into a Land Of Questions

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page C01

At Takoma Park Middle School, parents and administrators have spent 19 years wrangling about the annual eighth-grade trip to Florida. About half of the grade goes to Disney -- price: $610. Which means half do not go, raising issues of equity, comity, class and race. In Montgomery County, you could power a fleet of hybrid cars from all the hand-wringing about such questions.

Takoma Park was a majority black and Hispanic school until a math-science magnet program attracted high-achieving kids, almost all white or Asian, from across the county. But if the magnet helped the system resolve one of its ethnic math problems, the reality at such schools is that you have magnet and honors kids, and you have grade-level kids, and while their paths cross in art and P.E., they mainly go their own ways.

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"We do not have a school within a school," says Principal Jean Haven. "But are the magnet children with each other in the cafeteria? Yes."

For years, magnet kids got to go to Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center each February; the trip became known as great fun and a no-joke academic adventure.

It also became known among some parents as the Apartheid Trip.

No matter how many waves of reform sweep the nation, many issues in education seem eternal: Should kids be tracked? Who gets the best teachers? How much social engineering should schools do?

A simple school trip turns out to be the perfect vehicle for playing out these battles. Takoma Park's argument over the Florida trip has become so heated that some parents believe this may be its final year.

The trip has been tweaked repeatedly to make it less exclusive. It expanded to include non-magnet students with good grades. Kids who don't have the best averages might get the most out of such a journey, parents said, and a lottery was introduced.

Last year, only a couple of black children were among the 150 on the trip, says Yvette Butler, who lives in Silver Spring but sends her children to Takoma Park because of its strong academics. "No matter how they change the rules, there's constantly gatekeeping, leaving behind students who aren't doing well. You're always saying to them, 'You aren't good enough.' " This year, more blacks went to Florida, but only about 10 (including Butler's daughter).

"There will always be a parent or two who will think it's exclusive," says the principal. "But many students who did not go chose not to go because they heard the work is too hard." Money is not at issue, Haven says: Parent donations let the school offer aid to those who can't afford the trip.

Some parents say those left behind feel stigmatized and slog through a week with substitute teachers, but Haven is proud of the field trips for those kids. "Some well-meaning white parents are so concerned about those left behind -- I was here, and it was not a lunchroom of poor black kids."

That misses the point, says Ron McClain, who has one son who went on the trip and another who stayed home because he didn't want to hurt friends who were not going. McClain, who runs the private Parkmont School in the District, surveyed middle schools in Montgomery and found only two with such large overnight trips. "You can't run your school program if you take so many teachers out of the building," he says. "People have worked hard to make this trip more equitable, but the harder you work at it, the more it feels like it isn't an appropriate activity."

Class differences in artificially engineered schools are already difficult to overcome. Trips like this accentuate the gulf between haves and have-nots.

"What happens to families that speak Spanish, French or Amharic at home and don't know what this trip is about?" asks parent Carol Smalls. "The school listserv doesn't reach them."

Haven says she's tempted to make the Florida trip magnet-only again, but she won't cancel the event. "That's just not going to happen. Too many people feel this is the most important experience they had in school."

Those who go on the trip love it. And kids deserve to be taught at the most challenging level possible. But why expose 13-year-olds to such a harsh, gratuitous display of how life cleaves us? All this grief for a trip to Disney?

"What are we doing?" Butler wonders. "We're having segregated schools again. This is a good trip, so either take them all or don't bother with the whole thing."

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