November 29, 2011

Hempfield School District's Gettysburg 'Field Trip-Gate' Controversy

Location: Centerville, East Hempfield, PA 17601, USA
Just before leaving Lancaster to return to Pittsburgh after a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday with family, I glanced at the lead headline of the Sunday News and was surprised to see a lengthy article detailing a controversy about something near and dear to me, the Hempfield School District fifth grade Gettysburg Field Trip.  I fondly remember my trip to Gettysburg in 1997 as a ten or eleven year-old at Centerville Elementary School, and credit it with helping spark my interest in Civil War history.  The basic story is that in response to recent budget pressures some of Hempfield's seven elementary schools have cut field trips (with the Gettysburg trip getting the most attention).

A July 2011 tour of Gettysburg for
my father-in-law, my wife, and my
wife's cousin, whose Gettysburg field
trip had been cancelled.
However, what has inflamed passions--and gathered 343 protesting signatures at last count--is that the district's superintendent required equity among the PTO-supported field trips, effectively constraining field trip spending in the more affluent elementary schools to what the less affluent schools could raise.  It's a sad situation in which an elementary school rite of passage has become a casualty of the funding crisis.  While hanging out with my wife's middle school-aged cousin last July at a family picnic, I was shocked to learn his elementary school in Hempfield had cancelled the trip when he was to go on it.  Needless to say, we rectified that situation when I dragged him, my wife, and my in-laws over the battlefield three days later.  Anyway, I don't know enough of the details to pick a side in this battle, but here are three thoughts.

The Gettysburg field trip should receive high priority when making education resource allocation decisions.  Gettysburg National Military Park is an awe-inspiring treasure perfectly suited for school field trips that energizes learning in the classroom.  It boosts class morale, and I hypothesize it has small positive indirect effects on standardized test scores.  I recall several of my classmates--not just the highest academic achievers--being inspired to read Civil War fiction and non-fiction in fifth grade.  For some students, Gettysburg provides a place to forget the fatigue of the classroom and simply enjoy learning.  Plus, I can't see how it'd be all that expensive (although my perception of education spending is probably a little off after spending a couple years in a business school), but I don't know the numbers.  

We should cherish the ideal of equal access to fundamental educational opportunities.  I believe the district is sincere and correct in worrying that the inequity in field trips creates divisions within the district that are real and felt by students.  I haven't sufficiently collected my thoughts to articulate precisely why I passionately despise a situation in which some elementary schools get to go to Gettysburg and others don't based on funding, but it somehow uniquely offends my sense of what fairness means for elementary schools that feed to the same middle school.  Furthermore, East and West Hempfield Townships elected and many times re-elected Thaddeus Stevens--who may have done more than anyone else in Pennsylvania's history to advance public education and equity in education--and provided the "Greater Commoner" with his core constituency, so that should count for something.

Hempfield's current field trip funding policy sounds miserable and designed to fail, or at least invite major controversy.  It's unreasonable to solicit money from parents through PTO fundraisers and then not allow it to be spent on something educational that parents fervently support.  The incentives for parents of students in affluent and average schools in this scenario seem to be out of whack.  I guess it's one of the few times we can think of taxes as a virtue, as they avoid the messiness of trying to fund a public good with private donations. 

I wish a positive resolution for everyone involved, especially for the students in Hempfield's elementary schools whose fifth-grade Gettysburg trips are in jeopardy.  On the other hand, I guess if the funding situation isn't resolved, maybe Hempfield schoolchildren will have to just go to the Thaddeus Stevens Historic Site (to be operational in Lancaster in a couple years) and learn about a man who championed the cause of equity and fairness in public education.

To close out this post, here's a history tidbit for each of Hempfield's elementary school sites about people and events in East Hempfield and West Hempfield Townships from the Civil War:
  1. Rohrerstown: Was the site of a major Republican Party meeting and torchlight procession of "Wide Awakes" supporting Lincoln just before the Election of 1860.  Thaddeus Stevens delivered a speech for the occasion.
  2. Mountville: Was home to Corp. Elias H. Witmer of Company E, 79th Pennsylvania, whose letters to the Lancaster Express I am featuring on this website.  
  3. Landisville: Was home to Capt. William D. Reitzel, who in 1862 recruited a company nicknamed the "Continental Blues" that became Company G, 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves.  Reitzel authored letters to the Daily Inquirer during his service and was wounded in action at Gettysburg.  I just found this note under "Dismissals" though from the 12/28/1863 New York Times: "Capt. WILLIAM D. REITZEL, Second Pennsylvania reserves, to date Dec. 7, 1863, for absence without proper authority, misbehavior in the presence of the enemy, and violation of General Orders No. 92, of 1862, by visiting improper places of amusement while under medical treatment."
  4. Centerville: Mr. Getz (as in the affluent "Getz's Woods" neighborhood) traveled to Gettysburg shortly after the battle either as a relief mission or as a sightseeing trip.  The family farmstead at the corner of Sylvan Rd. and Harrisburg Pike was auctioned off in 2004 and included $10-20,000 of artifacts brought back from the Gettysburg battlefield that a Gettysburg antique dealer bought and resold on Ebay.  It also included a few other Civil War era items, and my wife now has two Paisley shawls from the auction.
  5. Farmdale: Was where Lieut. Jacob H. Witmer of Company E, 79th Pennsylvania, taught school before enlisting in the "Normal Rifles," a company composed of many schoolteachers with connections to the Millersville State Normal School.  Two letters he wrote from camp in late 1861 and early 1862 to a schoolteacher friend in Silver Spring were auctioned off on Ebay a few years ago.
  6. East Petersburg: Was home to Pvt. Josiah A. H. Lutz of Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg at the age of fifteen or sixteen.  He is buried in the East Petersburg Mennonite Cemetery. 

Detail of 1863 Bridgens' Atlas map of East Hempfield Township
showing what is now Centerville and Rohrerstown ("Hempfield P. O.").
Some of the farms on this map (e.g. Getz, Habaker) stayed in the family
until developed over the last ten or fifteen years.


  1. This post was excellent! I haven't been keeping up on Hempfield's budget problems, but I share your concern over the potential loss of this trip. It's a unique opportunity to live so close and get to experience such a significant historical site that it almost seems a crime to cut it! Not sure about your hypothesis over test scores, but I wouldn't mind if they cut one of the standardized bubble-tests instead! Great read, Vince!

  2. The gettysburg trip was one of my favorite field trips of my school career. Cutting it would be a terrible loss for all the current and future fifth graders.