'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.
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 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."
"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.
"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 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.
Article by Gary Hopkins
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