Aquinas Learning students on stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library for an acting lesson.

Unforgettable Experiences:

Designing a Successful Year of Aquinas Learning Field Trips

When we joined the Aquinas Learning Manassas Center in fall 2017, it was a wholly unexpected and delightful surprise to experience a year of enriching field trips, purposefully and thoughtfully planned by Aquinas mom duo Jessica and Carrie Wilson (not related). Field trip highlights from last year included a theater workshop and tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library, an outing to see The Tempest, a planetarium visit, science themed puppet shows for the smaller tots, visits to the National Gallery of Art, the Franciscan Monastery, and a culminating outing to Medieval Times for an educational 11th century feast and tournament. Here are a few “notes from the field” Carrie and Jessica have found helpful to follow after learning the “hard way” the year before.

Set a plan, guided by the curriculum and cycle year: Carrie says it is “vital to get a plan in place before the year starts.” To begin, Jessica researched the curriculum to “hit the biggies like medieval history, astronomy, and physics.” From there, both connected what they knew about area amenities, researched locations of interest, and came together with Manassas Director Rosario Reilly during the summer to create a “final” list of prospective field trips for the year. Finally, Jessica and Carrie split up the trips by personal interest to plan the remaining details. This year, subjects to cover will start with Catechism of the Catholic Church, founding of the U.S., explorers, anatomy, chemistry, and historical American sites.

Additional goals: Controlling costs, location, and keeping destinations reachable for traveling families are all key factors to consider. Parking accessibility and logistical ease for parents juggling multiple age groups is important. Consider planning an informal social activity for in between months and an outing for mothers to have a chance to bond and relax outside of the normal (and often exhausting) homeschooling routine. Some Aquinas Learning mothers met for tea and crafts at a Lavender Farm in December 2016.

Address varied age ranges: Make sure there are age-specific activities focused on both older and younger age groups, as well as some mixed age options. All should be as accommodating of younger and older accompanying siblings as possible. Carrie and Jessica, as well as other moms, are still working to best address ways to handle occasional babysitting on certain occasions where it would make trips easier for parent chaperones.

Communication Details—Notification methods and timing: The following communication methods took some time to evolve; what is described below is the method Carrie and Jessica plan to use this fall.

When the prospective plan for the year has been finalized, create a nonobligatory Signup Genius for all the planned activities at the beginning of the year. The signup gives planners feedback on interest level and provides families initial details about upcoming field trips such as dates, location, general times, etc. This is a helpful logistical tool for the planners because field trip targets must be contacted far in advance and estimates of participants are needed (attendance varied widely; some events were attended by only about 20 kids, others 70+). Finally, planners can make use of the built-in reminder option for events. Remind families that the initial Signup Genius is a planning tool only, not a guarantee of reservation; RSVPs and payment are the guarantee (more about managing payments below). For free events, both a RSVP and a small reservation fee will be required; the fee will be refunded at the event.

Second, follow-up with individual event invitations, with RSVP and payment information, and requiring firm commitment from parents/students wishing to attend the event. These notices should be sent via the preferred email loop for parents for the Center in question and highlighted in the Director Memos as well in the given timeframe. Using the email group, combined with the director notices, prevents email overload but makes the information documented and available for all families.

Money, Money, Money; Avoiding frustrating money issues: A decision must be made about who will pay for the events outright if it is necessary. Usually, it was the Center (easier since an accounting system is already in place). Payment also differed for each trip (some required a group payment, some individual payments). Carrie and Jessica credit Rosario for coming up with what they affectionately call the “Red Folder System”: The Director put a red folder marked “field trip payments” in her director file that was accessible each Aquinas Learning day. As notices for field trips went out and payment due dates were given, parents put a check in the folder to reserve their spot. After some trial and error, it was decided that all trips had to be paid ahead of time, and with non-refundable tickets. This allows people who cannot go because of sickness to find replacements but helps keep parents committed to the trip and prevents last minute back-outs.

Handling the unexpected: Carrie says there were not many big challenges that came up, “just the normal stuff of organizing a large group project, so you kind of take care of people and expect those last minute cancellations, odd requests, or logistical issues. And potential issues, especially with money and late payments, we adverted by putting up proper warnings and boundaries. For instance, this trip is non-refundable, etc. You must pay by this date or you can’t attend.” Jessica agreed: “You just had to take a deep breath and realize we were all moms trying to create special experiences for our kiddos. The money exchange was a bit difficult at first, but the red folder and having a payment deadline that provided enough buffer for last-minute requests and delinquent payments was key.”

New for this year—Parental Support Group: This time around, Carrie and Jessica are considering asking other parents to help out as a sort of “parent field trip support group.” Parent co-event leaders would have a chance to pitch in at events they have interest in and would help to ease the strain on the planners on the day of, acting as the point of contact, ticket distribution person, etc.

Summary: Basic Rules to Follow for a Successful Field Trip Experience

  • Set a plan before the school year starts; find field trips that bring relevance to the Aquinas Learning experience for that cycle.
  • Always get payment up front for booking.
  • Send ample warnings. Official warnings and notices go on the family MEMO as not everyone decides to join the parental group email loops.
  • Send multiple reminders in advance of trips on parental email loops.
  • Send more warnings about signup and payment due dates.
  • No refunds (accept transfers only if allowed by vendor) or find replacements to use tickets.

 Have you had great field trip experiences? Share your knowledge or tips with us at aquinaslearningjournal@gmail.com.

 

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