For thousands of school-age kids, the San Luis Obispo County coastline is a premier destination for epic field trips.
The Central Coast State Parks Association plays an important role in that. The nonprofit arm of State Parks routinely offers educational field trip tours at local landmarks like the Oceano Dunes, the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, and others.
And its programs don’t just serve SLO County students. Schools from Santa Maria to King City and from Paso Robles to the Central Valley send classes to the coast to experience and learn from the unique environment.
“Some of these kids tell us that if they didn’t have these opportunities, they wouldn’t set foot on a beach,” said Kristin Howland, executive director of the Central Coast State Parks Association. “They get to touch, feel, and learn, which is probably one of the most memorable things, and what really grows an environmental steward.”
But getting out to the coast isn’t easy for everyone. Whether it’s a school in Orcutt or one in Bakersfield, districts need to pay for bus transportation—which is becoming more and more of a challenge since COVID-19.
Between the high cost of gas, a shortage of bus drivers, and other budgetary challenges, fewer schools are sending classes out to the local state parks in the wake of the pandemic.
We saw a huge drop after COVID,” Howland said. “Unfortunately, we’re not always reaching the audience we want to and who really need it.”
Thankfully, the nonprofit recently received a much-needed boost in funding specifically to subsidize schools’ transportation to state parks. The PG&E Corporation Foundation awarded the group a $100,000 grant as part of its Better Together Nature Positive Innovation program.
Howland said she was pleasantly surprised to see her organization win the grant—as it was one of only five doled out by PG&E across the state. She said it will go toward establishing a new fund to help Title I underserved schools get their classes out to the coast.
“We’re looking at potentially over 100 schools, or field trips, that we’ll be able to serve,” she said.
Underscoring how expensive it is to charter a bus for students, Howland said that she is budgeting each trip at $1,000—with actual travel costs dependent on factors like how far the school is from the park.
“Some of those may have school bus drivers that would make that cheaper. And some charters will be less expensive,” she added.
Howland is expecting the PG&E grant to last through the end of the 2023-24 school year. Will the State Parks Association be able to find another grant to refill it in the future? Howland isn’t counting on it, but she emphasized that the funds are most needed right now.
“It probably won’t happen again, but we feel blessed,” she said. “We were really looking at ways we could increase attendance.”
School districts interested in applying for transportation funding can visit centralcoastparks.org.
• Planning a wedding, quinceañera, or other formal event? The city of Santa Maria is inviting locals to a 2023 Santa Maria Wedding/Quince Expo on Saturday, Jan. 7, and Sunday, Jan. 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Veterans’ Memorial Center. “The community is encouraged to meet local businesses that offer services to help create a spectaculor event,” according to the city. Vendors attending include florists, photographers, DJs, venue managers, event planners, caterers, and more. Entry to the event is free.
• Santa Barbara County has a new agriculture commissioner. County supervisors appointed Jose Chang to replace Cathy Fisher, who’s retiring after 12 years at the helm. Chang, who last worked as assistant agriculture commissioner in Monterey County, starts his new job on Jan. 23. “Mr. Chang is a wonderful addition to the county of Santa Barbara,” Board of Supervisors Chair Joan Hartmann said in a press release. “With Jose’s background in other California counties that focus on agriculture and his familiarity with our top crops, he has a good understanding of just how important the work he will be doing is for our whole community.”
• The second of four scheduled 4,000-pound rainbow trout releases happened in December in Cachuma Lake. The fish, which come from Mt. Lassen Trout Farms in Paynes Creek, range in size from half-pound “catchables” to 8-pound trophies. “These trout are double and triple the size of store-bought trout,” local angler Rich Tauber said in a press release. “Cachuma Lake is one of the very few lakes that continues to have large trout plants.”
New Times Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week’s Spotlight. Reach him at [email protected].