Palo Alto Unified has decided it will no longer allow school-sponsored international field trips for elementary school students, leading to the cancellation of a popular, longtime trip to Mexico for Spanish immersion students at Escondido Elementary School.
While the district has defended the change as in the best interest of student safety and equity, Escondido parents who cherish the trip — an immersive, culminating experience for fifth graders in the language program — bristled at the decision being made without their input.
Escondido Principal Marcela Simões de Carvalho notified fifth-grade Spanish immersion parents of the district's decision during a meeting at the end of the first week of school in August. The trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, was set for next June.
"Due to increased difficulties associated with international travel, the young age of our elementary students and a variety of equity issues, our school district will no longer approve international field trips for elementary-aged students," she wrote in a subsequent letter to parents.
"I recognize that some families may not support the decision that has been made, and I do respect and understand how many families are feeling. It is of value for our students to see how, even in moments of disappointment and disagreement, we can find common ground and move towards a positive solution."
Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Anne Brown told the Weekly that district leadership felt it was a "prudent" change given safety risks and concerns that not all students can afford to go on international field trips. (Escondido parents do raise funds and the school PTA provides scholarships to needy students for this trip, however.)
"Our No. 1 obligation is to make sure that we're keeping students safe, bottom line," Brown said. "The world — it's a very uncertain place. To put our youngest children out of our direct control where we cannot protect safety and security we think justifies this decision anywhere in the world right now."
The district followed its procedures in making this decision, Brown said. Under board policy, schools submit requests for out-of-state, out-of-country or overnight travel to the superintendent or a designee, who determines whether the travel should be recommended for approval to the Board of Education. Parent input is not a required part of the process, she noted.
"We do understand the disappointment. It's our job to ... ensure that all activities are equitable and that we can ensure safety," Brown said.
Several parents who were taken aback by what they described as a "unilateral" decision that lacked transparency and clarity spoke out at Tuesday's school board meeting. They said it was unclear how the decision was made and by whom. Several Escondido parents asked the board to review the staff's decision and place it on the board's agenda for a future meeting.
"Excluding firsthand expertise tends to lead to poor decisions overall," said Lena Russell, the parent of a fourth-grade Spanish immersion student.
"I only have one child and I wanted her to have this experience," another Spanish immersion mother said. "I think we should also acknowledge that parents are sending their children and can weigh the risk of a program like this."
The Spanish immersion trip, which has taken place since 2000, is the only school-sponsored international trip for elementary students in the district. Mandarin immersion parents from Ohlone Elementary School sponsor their own trip to China, according to Brown.
The district closely monitors conditions in Mexico each year for the trip and warns families and the teachers involved that it can be canceled, even at the last minute. It was canceled once before due to safety concerns, Brown said.
Simões de Carvalho said she learned of the district's decision the week that the school year began, when she reached out to Brown to ask whether she should start the necessary paperwork for the trip. She had repeated discussions with parents and staff last year about security in Mexico leading up to the trip.
"It is a trip that supports the Spanish immersion experience and ... that the teachers have put a lot of thought in making it a rewarding experience. I completely agree with that concept," Simões de Carvalho said. "But then I weigh the fact that as a school and a school district, one of our major responsibilities besides educating children is that we're not creating situations where we're going to be putting kids in any kind of harm's way."
The two Escondido teachers who plan the excursion are now arranging a non-school-sponsored trip to Guanajuato for next summer for families who still want to go. Escondido has agreed to provide space for planning meetings, fundraising, use of a copy machine and distribution of materials related to the alternative trip.
Escondido is also sending Spanish immersion fifth graders this year to an overnight science camp field trip with their peers in the school's English-only classes.
At Tuesday's board meeting, Superintendent Don Austin said the district would provide a written explanation to families to make clear the district's rationale and process.
"At a minimum we will all have the same information in front of us," he said.