Fifth graders from an urban school in Lodi were able to experience the majesty of the world’s largest tree species while on a field trip to Calaveras Big Trees State Park on Sept. 21.
Thanks to a new program created by the Calaveras Big Trees Association (CBTA) and jointly funded by a transportation grant from the Save the Redwoods League, Title I schools from outside the area are gaining access to the grove of giant sequoias and the ecological lessons it has to offer.
“I wish I owned this place,” said one student as he and his friends gazed up at the canopies high above.
“I’ve never seen trees this big in my life,” said another.
Although the guided tour through the North Grove trail with its Discovery Stump dance floor and hollowed-out Father of the Forest were an overwhelming favorite, park docents engaged students in other learning activities like nature journaling and building an ecological “Web of Life.”
The transportation scholarship program is no different from the other $60-per-student tours offered weekly at the park in that the lessons of the day reinforce Next Generation Science Standards that are taught throughout California. For local schools, Big Trees is a customary field trip for fifth graders who are studying life science and ecosystems.
However, students from schools in the Central Valley and beyond – especially Title I schools which have a large population of students from low-income families – often miss out on the trip due to the high cost of transportation.
“When I used to teach in Stockton, we wanted to bring kids up here, but it was impossible,” said Teddie Jackson, a retired teacher and park aide who championed the scholarship program last year. “It’s something I’m super passionate about.”
In the fall of 2017, CBTA provided $6,000 to support the program in its first year, and the Save the Redwoods League later awarded a grant of $15,000 for the next three years.
“Each organization is striving to protect our forests by connecting people with our public lands, and each has made it a priority to reach out to underserved communities,” reads the CBTA website. “These organizations understand that one day, the fate of our beloved parks will lie in the hands of today’s schoolchildren.”
Every school that applies for the program receives a $1,000 scholarship for charter bus transportation. The trips began in the summer of 2018, and there are 10 planned for fall and spring.
Jackson says the program has yet to turn down an applicable school. She has personally reached out to as many schools as possible in the hopes that the program will continue to renew interest and funding after three years have passed.
“A lot of students from our school don’t get the opportunity to get out of town,” said Beckman Elementary School teacher Sarah Santana, who applied for the program in April on behalf of three fifth grade classes and chaperoned the trip on Sept. 21. “We decided not to let them use electronics on the bus ride here. They need to experience being in nature.”
Letters from other schools that have applied for the program share a similar sentiment:
“Very few of our students have ever left Stockton. They have never experienced nature,” reads one letter featured on the CBTA website.
“Most of our students have not even been out to a forest of any kind,” reads another. “This trip would be a starting point for all kinds of lessons, from math, to science and writing, to art and poetry. It will be experience we’d share, a connection that they would make with nature and hopefully encourage visits to more of our beautiful state parks.”
One school which claimed to have the highest poverty rate it its district wrote, “Our fifth graders come from diverse cultures, but one thing they all share is a lack of life experiences. Hands-on activities such as this would show that real science needs to be seen and touched to create value. Supporting our science curriculum is a challenge. We are at a time of no textbooks and limited budgets to promote the importance of learning science.”
The park has also received letters of feedback from students who experienced the trip:
“My favorite part of the hike was to see the Mother of the Forest [tree],” wrote one fifth grader. “That is sad that men skinned the tree for the bark to sell it. I happened to notice there was heart in the tree.”
Another wrote, “My absolute favorite part of the trip was journaling. Something I remember was I thought journaling was boring, but when I did it, it was really fun. I like seeing different things in the environment. This opportunity of going to Big Trees State Park was unforgettable.”