In Burbank, many fifth-graders live for Outdoor Science School — the handful of days when they venture to the mountains or ocean to hike trails with naturalists, sing songs by the campfire and sleep in bunks.
The tradition has lasted more than 20 years at some schools, but recent economic hardship — coupled with a 2010 ACLU lawsuit that put pressure on schools to raise donations rather than charge parents fees — has many concerned about the cost.
Director of Elementary Education Tom Kissinger said principals have increasingly expressed stress over the challenges involved in raising the $200 to $350 it costs to send one student away.
It costs a collective $44,000 to send Jefferson fifth-graders to Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu. Four nights at Thousand Pines in Crestline for Stevenson students can total $25,000.
The costs are made even more significant when considering the financial crunch Burbank Unified is under. The district is preparing to slash its budget and may lay off teachers and staff as it stares down a $4.4-million deficit by the end of the current school year. And the deficit could get worse next year.
For some, it’s become too much.
After more than 20 years, McKinley Elementary bid farewell to Outdoor Science School in 2010 because of the rising cost and safety hazard. In 2010, when the fifth-graders were in Malibu, a large storm wiped out communications and worried administrators.
A bigger student population could also no longer afford the trip and “it was a big decision” to quit going, said fifth-grade teacher Shawn Mulloy.
“For us, it didn’t seem fair to have an activity where we were going to have to do enough fundraising to cover it or students would not be able to participate,” Mulloy said.
For the schools that have decided to stick with the outdoor excursion program, it’s a continued struggle to find enough funding each year to cover those who can’t pay.
“We want to make sure that all children who want to participate get to participate regardless of the financial situation,” Kissinger said, adding that parent organizations must make critical decisions about choosing programs they want to rally behind.
It’s a familiar position for Lori Flosi, principal of Edison Elementary, where it costs more than $300 to send each fifth-grader to Big Bear.
“I think there’s more people that need the help,” Flosi said. “It might wipe out the bank account of our booster club, but we do an extra fundraiser.”
Disney Elementary Principal Sandra DeBarros said more than half of her students last year were unable to raise enough money to pay the $245 it costs each student to visit Lake Arrowhead.
“Either everybody goes or nobody does,” DeBarros said, so parents always seem to pull through.
This year, a spaghetti dinner helped raise the $12,000 needed for the trip, in addition to students selling chocolate bars to family members for $2 or $3 each.
“When you think of this experience this money buys, it’s priceless — the kind of things my kids have only seen in movies,” DeBarros said.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.