NORTHAMPTON — As students at Northampton High School prepare to embark on this year’s field trip to Guatemala, School Committee members are raising questions about whether such excursions are prohibitively expensive for lower-income students.
In a School Committee meeting last week, committee member Nathaniel Reade went so far as to question the legality of the “trips that are more like vacations,” referring to a district policy prohibiting “private” trips.
Social studies teacher Kate Todhunter has led the excursions in recent years, taking students as far as Cambodia and now Guatemala.
In a terse exchange, Todhunter shouldered criticism from Reade, rejecting the implication that only students from affluent families are able to participate on such adventures.
“I know these kids. I’ve had kids who worked at Taco Bell for a year to go to Cambodia,” Todhunter said, adding she can only put on so many bake sales and car washes. “This is a diverse group of students.”
Reade acknowledged that Todhunter uses her personal vacation time to take students abroad, but said the trips seem excessive, referring to “air-conditioned buses” and hotels provided with the $3,000 cost of the trip.
“We don’t discriminate based on income in any other way,” Reade said. “It’s bothering people and it seems to violate our existing policies.”
Candice Walczak, business administrator for the district, said she would review the policy in question. In addition to the possibility the policy prohibits trips organized by private companies, which is how the school has historically done it, Walczak said reference to “private” trips may instead mean that a teacher should not be organizing them on their own.
“I think there might be a couple different ways to read that paragraph,” adding that she would check with the policy’s author and report back.
Northampton High School Principal Bryan Lombardi came to Todhunter’s defense, saying Reade’s characterization of the trips “stings” and he doesn’t find it “appropriate or fair” to blame Todhunter.
“This practice has gone on for at least 10 years,” he said, adding that students benefit from the trips and that Todhunter has been following “past practices.”
Still, Lombardi conceded it’s worth looking into issues of access.
“But you’re right — they’re expensive trips,” he said. “It’s a dynamic question.”
Reade recalled how when he was in grade school these types of field trips were arranged as low-cost exchanges between language departments.
“I don’t really accept that this is the only model,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Superintendent John Provost floated the idea of setting a cap on the price.
“Right now our district doesn’t define what’s affordable,” Provost said.
The School Committee ultimately voted unanimously to approve the trip to Guatemala, acknowledging students are already geared up to go. But they promised to review the policy and explore alternative models.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.