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'City School Overnight Safaris' Promote Student Attendance

In Sacramento, California, an unusual alliance between the school district, a zoo, and the National Guard has resulted in a successful program that encourages fifth graders to come to school and behave well. The reward for their hard work is an overnight excursion to the Sacramento Zoo, where they watch animals, play games, and enjoy a pancake breakfast! Could a similar program be implemented in your area? Included: A zoo representative details the evening's festivities!

"Not only is the Overnight Safari an experience that many of the students will never forget, it has brought together many factions of our community," Marsha Neilson told Education World. "It has become a community effort. Many of the students attending have never been camping or to our zoo. It's a night away from parents. It's a wonderful experience that is difficult to explain unless you've experienced it."

Neilson first became involved in the safari program when she and other members of the Student and Family Support Services Department of the Sacramento City Unified School District held a meeting at the Sacramento Zoo three years ago. After the meeting, staff of the zoo's educational department took the district members on a tour of the zoo and discussed the zoo's youth programs.

"We thought it would be natural to join together to develop positive attendance programs," said Neilson. A meeting was scheduled to consider options, and the City School Overnight Safaris program was established to promote better attendance and behavior.


Neilson and members of the zoo's education department conduct a kick-off assembly for fifth graders at each participating school. Parents are invited to attend the assembly, which takes place about six weeks prior to the overnight visit.

The zoo brings Julio, a blue macaw, who is very visible during the overnights, to the assembly. The students receive information packets and a contract that both student and parent must sign for the student to participate. The students agree that they will maintain good attendance, behave well, and not be suspended or referred to the office from the day of the assembly until the overnight stay.

According to Robin Whittall, the Sacramento Zoo education director, the Overnight Safari was a good fit because the zoo was seeking community partnerships that would have a positive effect on children in its immediate area.

"We were looking for at-risk children to support because so often they do not get the opportunities to see the zoo," explained Whittall. "The zoo is free for Title 1 schools that state a need for school field trips, but sometimes they can't afford the cost of a bus."

The Sacramento Zoo has many responsibilities in making the overnight program a success, according to Whittall:

  • The zoo books the reservations about a year in advance.
  • The staff works to get grants to help cover fees.
  • The zoo subsidizes the cost of the visit; the school pays about half price for these programs.
  • Zoo staff help the National Guard get in and out of the zoo with trucks full of tents and other supplies.
  • The zoo holds supplies as they are delivered.
  • Two staff members run the educational programs during each visit.

"The chaperones are all in street clothes and develop a positive mentoring relationship with the kids. The kids love it!" Whittall said. "We get very, very tired during a marathon week of back-to-back overnight programs, but our staff enjoys the kids' excitement! It is a lot of effort, but well worth it for our community."

Overnight at the Zoo Itinerary

Robin Whittall explains, "The students arrive in a school bus at 6 p.m. The chaperones meet them and take them to our lawn to find their tent. We do a series of activities." Those activities include

* a Scrabble type of hunt for the word crepuscular.
* a listening game in which students identify animal calls.
* a smelling game.
* a mystery word activity.
* a discussion of how some animals are going to bed as others are just starting their day.

After all of that, the students view a zoo staff member feeding a treat to a nocturnal animal at the hyena exhibit and listen to professional storytellers. Then they have dinner, a snack, and go to bed. In the morning, the fifth graders have breakfast and see more feedings at exhibits. Then off they go!


Martha Quadros, vice principal of Fruit Ridge Elementary School, the first school in the district to join in the zoo overnight program, believes it has had a positive influence on the children involved.

"The students love the trip and the experience," she told Education World. "Most students' behavior and attendance is improved prior to the trip because of the contracts and their desire to go. Students who have behavior problems have worked hard to improve in order to qualify for the trip. Attendance has improved, including tardiness. I have seen students and teachers bond as a result of the zoo trip."

The teachers at Fruit Ridge seem to enjoy sharing the zoo experience with the students. They prepare the students, follow through with the contracts, chaperone, and use the trip as a teaching opportunity before and after the visit.


Pam Phelps's fifth-grade Spanish immersion/English students look forward to the trip from the beginning of school.

"From the first day of school they ask about the overnight zoo trip," said Phelps. "It is an experience I know that they will never forget. For many of them it's their first time away from home. Many parents are nervous, but we reassure them. For some students, it's their first time to the zoo. They just love seeing the animals and taking pictures of the animals and their friends. It is so great to watch their excitement."

When the students sign their contracts about attendance, behavior, and homework shortly before the trip, Phelps adds wearing uniforms to the deal! After the contracts are signed, Phelps has seen behavior improve, uniforms worn daily, tardiness and absences decrease, and homework completed on time. All of those things are associated with the zoo program.

"I chaperone the trip, monitor contracts, and 'talk-up' the program from the first day of school," Phelps said. "The program is very well organized and executed. We even use the trip as an academic tool connected to letter writing and vocabulary building. I thank the district, zoo, and all volunteers who provide this opportunity to our students."


The most positive result of the overnight program is improvement in student attendance and behavior.

"The first school that participated is still attending, and we see an impact even on the fourth graders, as they know what they have to do to get to go when they are in the fifth grade," said Neilson. "We have another school that has participated the last two years, and it is reporting the same thing. This is an extremely successful program."

Neilson is willing to share information with anyone who is interested in the zoo program. She can be reached by phone at (916) 264-3128. She recommends that schools get in touch with zoos in their areas and encourage community agencies to get involved. Together, she believes, any community can build a program that suits the needs of local students.

Zoo Program Grows 'Overnight'

The third year of the City School Overnight Safaris recently came to an end. Neilson says that this was the program's most successful year. The program has expanded from about 100 students eligible the first year to include five schools in its second year. Approximately 80 students attended each night.

"Every year is getting better," explained Neilson. This year, eight schools participated in the event, which was held on four consecutive nights. About 600 students were eligible for the program, and 409 students attended.

Next year, the program will be held during one week in April and one week in October. The district plans to make the program available to 800 students a year.

"The first year our department funded the program," Neilson added. "We have to raise the funds through grants and donations. Our total budget this year for the spring was about $15,000 for four nights. Although it sounds like a lot, that included everything -- even sweatshirts for everyone attending!"


  • The Sacramento Zoo
    Learn more about the Sacramento Zoo online. This site provides resources for teachers and interesting "e-features" about animals for kids.
  • Sacramento City Unified School District
    Visit this school district Web site for more information about the many programs it offers.

Article by Gary Hopkins
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