RICHLAND HILLS -- A yellow school bus carrying third-graders arrived at the Trinity Railway Express station with seconds to spare Wednesday morning.
Luckily, the 8:41 a.m. eastbound train was a few minutes behind schedule, so the children and chaperons scrambled onboard before the train pulled out, blaring its whistle as it crossed Handley-Ederville Road.
To save money, the 49 students from Francisco Elementary School in Haltom City took the TRE instead of a bus on a field trip to the Dallas World Aquarium. To help pay for the excursion, the school won a contest on Facebook.
"This is the first time we've tried such an ambitious field trip," said Tammy Pope, the teacher who organized the trip. "We had tried to crunch numbers before and just had a real hard time with it. The grant kind of gave us the freedom to try it."
Francisco's field trip is just one example of how school districts are finding creative ways to pay for off-campus activities as they deal with massive state budget cuts.
Schools are cutting or scaling back field trips, asking parents to chip in, or turning to grants and corporate sponsors. According to a survey released this week by the American Association of School Administrators, 30 percent of schools eliminated field trips this school year and 43 percent expect cuts next year.
The Birdville school district allots Francisco about $1,200 per year for field trips, enough for one trip per grade level. But additional money from outside sources allows outings that are more extensive or expensive, Principal Janelle Rayfield said.
"We had about the same money budgeted for this year before we won this money. So this helps maximize the money," Rayfield said. "We are a low socio-economic school and our students are not able to go to a lot of different places. So we are able to provide some experiences for the children that they would not have otherwise."
'The money is there
for the taking'
Other districts are finding ways to get students out of the classroom as well.
On Tuesday, 62 students from West Handley Elementary School worked with master naturalists to learn about science, math and writing at the 160-acre Tandy Hills Natural Area in Fort Worth.
Last year, Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area launched a program for Fort Worth schools that pays for field trips, including buses and outdoor restrooms, said Don Young, co-director of the program.
In Arlington, schools that qualify for federal Title I funding receive extra money for field trips. And sometimes PTAs help support such trips, said Amy Casas, district spokeswoman.
Sycamore Elementary School, a Crowley district school in Fort Worth, won a $700 grant from Target's Field Trip Grant program that covered most of the cost of 115 second-graders' trip to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in March.
"The money is there for the taking. You've got to go out and get it," said Sycamore teacher Louise Morgan, who writes The Frugal Teacher blog. "I think it is the new model. You should take advantage of the money that is out there before you take the school's money. That's being a responsible teacher."
The Fort Worth Zoo offers schools a virtual field trip of live lessons using technology similar to Skype. To expand the reach of its education department, the zoo joined Region 11's Connect 2 Texas program in April 2011 because transportation costs may make a visit too expensive or logistically difficult, particularly for distant districts, spokeswoman Alexis Wilson said.
The value of being there
Francisco's field trip was part of a 12-week unit on rain forests, and taking the train cost less than tying up a school bus all day. The school district charges $2 per mile to use a bus (it's 62 miles to Dallas and back), plus $15 an hour for the driver, not counting overtime.
A student day pass on the TRE costs $2.
Much of the funding came from the third grade's $800 share of a $5,000 grant in a Back to School Sweepstakes from Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex. Francisco was among 100 schools nationwide to collect the most votes from parents and supporters on the Facebook page for Kleenex.
Every grade level at Francisco got to spend part of the money on field trips, including a trip for second-graders to the Museum of Science and History, Rayfield said.
For Wednesday's field trip, families were asked to chip in $8 per student to help cover lunch and admission, Pope said.
Pope said she felt strongly that students needed to experience the train ride and the aquarium's seven-story exhibit on the South American rain forest.
"We can talk about the rain forest. We can show them pictures of the animals. But none of that does what walking through the rain forest does," Pope said. "Many of them have never been to Dallas. I have literally for at least 10 years been wanting to do this specific field trip. It's been my dream field trip."
Staff writer Shirley Jinkins contributed to this report.
Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326