School administrators frown upon students missing school for a family vacation. But my husband and I justified the trip because it was such a great deal, and our children would miss only four school days.
When the offer came in the mail it seemed too good to be true: five nights in an exclusive resort on St. John for a fraction of the cost of regular room rates. I called to book a family vacation immediately, and lo and behold, there was a catch. None of the available dates fell on our children’s school vacations or long weekends.
I have visited the U.S. Virgin Islands a half dozen times, and St. John is by far my favorite of the three islands with its lush landscape, pristine beaches and laid-back vibe. Yet, in general, the most expensive times to travel there—or anywhere—are when schools have vacations.
Weighing the pros and cons
School administrators frown upon students missing school for a family vacation. But my husband and I justified the trip because it was such a great deal, and our children would miss only four school days. My son was in third grade at the time, and my daughter was a first grader. As they get older, I’m sure it will become more difficult to catch up if they miss a week of school. Teachers and administrators say that taking kids out of school is disruptive and students can easily get behind in their work, especially at the high school level. Before we left, we asked our kids’ teachers if there were any assignments we should take with us, but they told us not to worry about makeup work.
Learning on location
In retrospect, we have no regrets. Every day was a new adventure: in the morning we packed up our picnic lunch and snorkeling equipment and drove to a different beach, one more stunning than the next. At Cinnamon Bay, we bodysurfed in the huge waves. At Trunk Bay, we followed the underwater snorkeling trail, peering at the colorful sea life. And at Leinster Bay, my husband and the kids actually swam with a sea turtle.
One morning we went on a guided hike on the Reef Bay Trail in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, where we learned that the park isn’t actually a rainforest because it doesn’t meet the definition of 160 inches of rain per year, saw petroglyphs (rock carvings left by native tribes who lived on the island before European settlers), and explored an old sugar mill now inhabited by bats. Every afternoon, we returned to the hotel in time for the daily iguana feeding—where the kids threw handfuls of lettuce to two dozen or so three-foot-long iguanas.
When we settled into our hotel room at night, we used our laptop to research various facts and trivia, marveling over all we had learned. “It’s one big outdoor classroom here!” my son announced, alleviating any guilt we felt over taking the kids out of school.
The official word
Stanley L. Bippus, of Huntington, Ind., spent 20 years as a school superintendent before he retired in 2006. He agrees that it’s easy for students who miss class to fall behind. But he also views family travel as an opportunity for an educational adventure, arguing that when kids reflect back, they usually say that a well structured family vacation rather than something learned in the classroom is their best learning experience.
“Vacations reinforce the fact that the entire world is a learning opportunity, not just classrooms at school,” says Bippus. “If parents make a little extra effort, for example to stop on the highway and read the historical markers, it can be better than anything they’ll ever get in school.”
Bippus suggests that schools ask students who miss school for travel respond to some standard questions about the trip and then give an oral report to fellow students. For example, they could answer questions such as, “What was the most exciting part of your trip?” “What are three things you learned on this trip that you didn’t know?” “How was the scenery different from scenery here?”
When we returned home, my son’s teacher asked him to do an assignment on his trip and his enthusiasm was palpable. He assembled photographs and did research on the Internet for a report titled, Wild Life on St. John. It was the highlight of his school year.
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