School Lays Groundwork, Ground Rules for Spring Trip

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With military precision, 178 8th graders file out of the hotel lobby, hustle to their designated buses, and line up in alphabetical order. One by one, they count off, each calling out an assigned number before ascending the steps and finding a seat.

They've got a full day of sightseeing, starting at Mount Vernon in 50 minutes, and there's no time for goofing around.

As at hundreds of other schools across the country, it's an annual spring tradition for students at Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to visit the nation's capital.

While the four-day trip is a major logistical undertaking for school staff members, teacher Mary Jane Bricka says she welcomes the challenge.

"This trip is the highlight of my year," says Ms. Bricka, who helps organize the trip every year. "The kids are so competent, and you see them becoming these young adults away from home. It's wonderful."

Slauson Middle School has perfected the yearly trip, she says, thanks to an effective discipline policy and months of preparation.

D.C. for Dollars

For Slauson students, discipline on the Washington trip is synonymous with one word: fines. As a part of a long-standing practice, chaperones are empowered to levy monetary fines against the students whenever they misbehave or break any pre-set ground rules.

Smaller infractions, such as swearing, are worth a $1 penalty. The amount increases with the severity of the situation. Students who violate a specified meeting time, for example, are fined $5 for every minute they're late. Students caught out of their rooms after curfew without a legitimate reason owe $25.

The chaperones don't keep the money. Each dollar becomes a prize for a trivia game that the students play on the bus ride home. The game, which they call "D.C. for Dollars," draws on facts the students should have learned over the course of the trip, such as the height of the Washington Monument.

The system is no joke. When Gabriel Anderson lingers too long at the Jefferson Memorial, he sprints back to the bus only to find that his classmates have already boarded. The 8th grader starts to reach for his wallet even before chaperones Rick Brewster and John Boshoven ask him to fork over a $10 fine.

"With the fining system, [the trip] isn't stressful at all," says Mr. Brewster, a wrestling coach who has served as a chaperone for almost 20 years. "The kids know that when they protest, the fines go up."

The students, of course, are less than thrilled by the policy.

"Five minutes into the trip, all I did was ask Mr. Brewster if you're allowed to say the word 'suck,' and he said, 'Fine,'" complains Rachel Wood. "It's so tragic, isn't it?"

Safety First

In Mr. Brewster's view, the strict policy is in place mainly to keep the students safe.

As the bus winds through downtown toward Ford's Theater, he reminds them of the dangers of the city, and asks them to hold up their "yellow cards," laminated pieces of paper that contain emergency instructions and phone numbers. Students are told to use their yellow cards if they ever get separated from their predetermined travel groups, which consist of 10 students and a chaperone.

"If I catch you without your yellow card at this point, it's an automatic $10 fine," the coach warns. "I can't afford to lose anybody this year, OK?"

If the veteran chaperone seems overly cautious, it's with good reason. Just last month, a woman tried to abduct a 9-year-old boy who was visiting the National Museum of Natural History here on a field trip with his Maryland elementary school.

And Mr. Brewster remembers his own scary experience last year when he became separated from one of the students in his charge while crossing a busy intersection. Another travel group eventually picked up the lost student, who was engulfed by a crowd when he bent down to pick up a souvenir he had dropped in the sewer.

"I was panicked," Mr. Brewster recalls. "I was calling the hotel every 20 minutes, and the group that got him didn't call in until after I called. So, for about 17 minutes I had to wonder if I had lost somebody's kid.''

Getting Ready

In addition to receiving yellow cards, the students are briefed thoroughly on what they can expect from the trip long before they leave the parking lot of their middle school for the 12-hour bus ride.

"The kids usually self-select their travel groups and then meet with their chaperones four or five times to talk about what they want to do on their own and make up group rules," Ms. Bricka says. "Then I meet with each of the groups to talk about how to check into the hotel and board the bus properly. The planning pays off."

The school also tries to ensure that each student has worked for the opportunity to come here. The students are required to participate in at least five of the 10 fund raisers, including a candy sale, a car wash, and a pancake dinner, organized over the course of the year to help subsidize the $425-per-student cost of the trip.

The fund raisers are mandatory, says Ms. Bricka, even if "a parent decides to write out a check for the whole thing."

The students prepare in academic ways as well.

"We're learning about the Constitution in history class, so when we were at the [National] Archives that was cool," Rachel says.

The students read excerpts from Anne Frank's diary in their language arts classes to help get them ready for the difficult material they will encounter at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"It's interesting to see how the kids respond," Mr. Boshoven says. "Some of them breeze through the museum pretty quickly, and some are really captivated."

Outside the museum, Mr. Boshoven leans in close to his group of 10 boys and reminds them that during this stop especially, they need to be respectful. The boys, clad in baggy denim shorts and sunglasses recently purchased from a street vendor, nod solemnly.

Time for Bed

At the end of the day, the Slauson chaperones can see the results of another, pre-emptive discipline tactic: wearing their charges out.

By the time the students stumble back to their hotel rooms at midnight, they have toured Mount Vernon, Ford's Theater, the Kennedy Center, and the Holocaust Museum, stopping along the way at the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives, and the Hard Rock Cafe. They ended the evening with a dinner-and-dancing cruise on the Potomac River, where one couple was fined $5 each for kissing on the dance floor.

"They broke the hands-holding-only rule," Ms. Bricka says.

After curfew, the chaperones go from room to room, taping each door with masking tape after they're sure the right students are inside. Broken tape in the morning is a sure sign the children were somewhere they didn't belong.

Two roaming guards provided by the travel agency will offer additional security.

"What a day!" says Ms. Bricka, looking at her watch.

In less than seven hours, she will wake up for the group's second day of sightseeing. They've got the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court in the morning, and Union Station, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial in the afternoon--not to mention an evening picnic in Maryland.

But now, finally, she can rest.

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