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Copyright 2001 Charleston Newspapers  
Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

February 04, 2001, Sunday

SECTION: News; Pg. P1B

LENGTH: 1112 words

HEADLINE: Field trip of dreams Kanawha students flock to ther movies on school time

BYLINE: Eric Eyre

t's 9 a.m. on a Wednesday at Marquee Cinemas, and nine Kanawha County school buses roar into the parking lot.

More than 450 John Adams Junior High School students pile out of the buses and hustle inside to watch a movie, munch on popcorn and drink soda pop.

Three hours later, the buses shuttle the students and teachers back to school.

About once every three school days, some Kanawha County school is sending children to a movie theater, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail analysis of school transportation records.

The movie trips usually increase around the holidays and near the end of the school year. Marquee holds special morning showings on school days for Kanawha County students.

"In December, we did one movie for a school every day," said Rob Thompson, manager at Marquee. "We had so many in December, my brain was fogged. It was just nonstop."

During the school day, students also go bowling (84 times in nine months), play miniature golf (45 times) and shop at Town Center Mall, Kanawha Mall and the Dollar Store.

Sometimes, the buses will make several stops - the movie theater, mall and a fast-food restaurant - with the same group of students during the same school day. The field trips can last more than six hours.

"We don't question them," said George Beckett, the school system's transportation chief, noting that school principals have the final say on where students go on field trips.

Of the 61 times Kanawha County schoolchildren went to movies during the past nine months, all but five trips were to Marquee Cinemas. There, they lounge in high-back chairs and watch movies such as "The Grinch," "102 Dalmatians," "The Emperor's New Groove" and "Mission to Mars."

The county bused more than 7,700 students - a number equal to more than a third of all Kanawha County elementary and middle-school children - to the movies during the past nine months.

"Maybe, the next time Walt Disney has a major movie release, we should shut down the school system for a few days to save on busing costs to Southridge," said school board member John Luoni.

Kanawha County school principals defended the movie trips.

They said many students have never been to a movie theater before. Sometimes, students watch movies at the cinema that they previously read as books in class, principals said.

But most often, principals said they hold the movies up as rewards for good behavior, grades and attendance.

"Some children have to have something immediately tangible to work for," said Carla William-son, principal at Hayes Junior High School. "It's positive reinforcement."

Two weeks ago, a Kanawha County school bus carrying Hayes students crashed along Corridor G. No one was injured.

The children were returning from Marquee, where they had watched "The Emperor's New Groove." Charleston newspapers and television stations reported the accident and activity.

Williamson said no one has complained about the field trip. Fifty-nine children spent three hours at the movies that day.

"The community understands what we're trying to do," William-son said. "The teachers decided it, and I approved it. They asked the kids what kind of reward they wanted to work for."

The total transportation cost of the movie trips was $ 5,277 - a tiny percentage of the school system's transportation budget.

The fuel costs for a single trip can run as high as $ 300. For schools near Southridge Centre, however, fuel costs may fall to $ 30 or below.

Schools also must sometimes pick up the bus drivers' overtime pay. Many schools also pay for students' movie tickets - about $ 5 a child.

If enough children go, Marquee throws in free popcorn and a drink.

"We as a school system need to be careful that we do not reward with food, particularly junk food," said Brenda Isaac, lead nurse for Kanawha County schools. "There have got to be better ways to reward people."

Each fall, schools receive money for field trips from the school system's general budget.

Principals can spend the money as they see fit.

They can haul students to Sunrise Museum to explore scientific principles, the state Capitol Complex to learn about government, the Civic Center to watch a play, and Kanawha State Forest and Coonskin Park to picnic and hike.

Or they can take them to the movies.

"I'm always amazed we have money for this kind of activity," said school board member Pete Thaw. "Why don't we spend the money for instruction for these children?"

In their reviews of school systems in West Virginia, state education auditors sometimes cite schools for shortchanging students on instructional time.

"There's a certain amount of time required each day for instruction," said Donna Davis, deputy director of the state Office of Education Performance Audits. "If the school is having a number of activities that are not academically related, then it might lead to a noncompliance."

Davis said the agency wouldn't necessarily flag a school that took large numbers of students to a bowling alley or movie.

The activities might be linked to the school's curriculum. Students may watch a movie based on a book they've read. Or the gym teacher may lead a unit about bowling and follow it with a trip to the nearest bowling alley.

Joyce Embrey, principal at Midland Trail Elementary, said 30 students went bowling for that reason last week. The trip also was a reward for students who had doubled the number of books they normally read as part of a school reading program.

"Some of them had never been bowling," Embrey said.

When principals need a bus for a field trip, they must fill out a "curricular" trip request form and submit it to one of five Kanawha County school bus terminals. They also may state a reason for the trip.

For movie trips, some principals put down "academics." One stated, "fun and games." But the majority list "reward" as the reason for the trip to the movies, bowling alley, miniature golf center or roller rink.

Some child psychiatrists criticize principals and teachers who dangle rewards over students for good behavior. They say such measures make children even more dependent on others for approval and recognition. Such students lack self-confidence and responsibility.

Capital High School Assistant Principal Clinton Giles said he doesn't like offering rewards for good behavior and attendance.

But he said societal and cultural changes have created a generation of students who only respond to: "What's in it for me?"

"It's no longer the carrot and the stick," Giles said. "It's carrot, carrot, carrot."

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.

LOAD-DATE: February 05, 2001