alewis@ricentral.com

Since the school committee voted down the eighth-grade, school-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C. more than a month ago, parents have been hard at work to ensure this year’s class won’t be missing out.

Parents will replace teachers as chaperones and calls will have to be made to excuse absences from school, but the trip will take place as originally scheduled. While the decision has inconvenienced and concerned many parents, Sherri Tracey never had any doubts that the longstanding program wouldn’t continue. 

“This was always going to happen,” she said. “Don’t underestimate an East Greenwich parent.”

Tracey, working alongside Trip Coordinator Howard Faunce, Ji Kim and several other parents, has helped spearhead the issue. In the time since he reached out to the Close Up Foundation several weeks ago about continuing the trip, Faunce has been fielding calls from fellow parents of eighth graders, and others whose children are still a few years off from even entering middle school. 

More than 50 parents gathered in the cafeteria at Cole Middle School last Wednesday night to discuss trip logistics. Although the Close Up Foundation usually only offers one informational parent night for each trip, Outreach Representative Jon Gerst recognized the unique circumstances. 

In December, the school committee voted against the long-running trip due to concerns for equity and the financial cost to families. This year, the price per student will be $1,432. The number covers program tuition, all hotel accommodations, roundtrip airfare and meals while in the city, according to Close Up Outreach Representative Jon Gerst.

Close Up also offers better, more in-depth learning opportunities for students than other tours that do admittedly come at a much lower price, according to Gerst.

“The structure of the program is really unique,” he said. “It’s not something any other group is doing in D.C.”

Rather than just walking around the National Mall to look at monuments, Close Up students are broken off into groups and instructed by program directors with curriculum specifically tailored to middle schoolers. 

“The purpose of the program is to give students an understanding of what it means to be an effective citizen from a historical perspective, but also to be fun, to be exciting, to open their eyes to what government is all about,” Gerst said. “To open their eyes to what the history of the U.S. government is, and some really unique moments in our history.”

The program brings together middle school students from all over the country, allowing them to share and discuss different viewpoint on a wide variety of issues.  

Usually, the trip is chaperoned by teachers who have the opportunity to attend their own informational workshops throughout the day while program staff from Close Up bring students around town. While students are visiting the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress or debating and voting on current issues in mock congress, parents will also have enrichment opportunities. 

The only thing that would interrupt the trip’s normal offerings is if the government were to be shut down again. In that case, none of the Smithsonian Museums would be open.

The price to families, as Gerst said, is high. But Close Up and parents are willing to help make sure no student is turned down for financial reasons.

“I hope you believe me when I say I really believe in what we do,” Gerst said. “I believe in what Close Up is all about. I believe that we bring kids together to have conversation they wouldn’t be having in classroom, that they wouldn’t be having in D.C. with another organization.”

This year, it’s expected that 80 students will be participating. Looking at the sign-up sheet alone, Tracey said she counted nearly 60 names. She also said she knows of many more parents who weren’t able to make the meeting that night.

Although many parents are relieved that the program will continue, many still remain upset by the school committee’s decision, especially in the absence of an opinion from the Rhode Island Department of Education on the district’s field trip policy. 

“The rug was ripped out from under these kids in December without any warning,” Tracey said. 

Although her child will be able to attend this year, she worries about preserving the trip for future eighth-grade classes to come.

“This is a Band-Aid for this year,” Tracey said. “We had a short amount of time to put this together. For next year, there needs to be a way around this or a solution.”

The new, extended deposit deadline for this year’s trip will be Feb. 7. From now until the last balance billing date in April, Tracey, Faunce and other parents want to help families with fundraising efforts.

“As parents, we don’t want anyone to miss out because of finances,” Tracey said. 

“This trip is optional,” she continued. “If a family wants their child to go but can’t afford it, they may have to disclose that to someone, just like they would for free lunch.”

Parents are currently working to establish a designated person others can go to in confidence. 

For those who wish to help with fundraising efforts for the Washington, D.C. trip, the group will be welcoming donations in the coming weeks.

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