Jardine: Will Tuolumne school program survive?

WATERFORD — It's just over a mile from Lucille Whitehead Intermediate School to the bank of the Tuolumne River at Waterford River Park.

Third- and fourth-graders went there Wednesday morning to learn about the river, its ecosystem — bugs, fish, plants and all kinds of stuff ranging from icky to cool — and about the American Indians who once inhabited the area.

The students experienced in the field things that would have bored them in a classroom.

"You couldn't take the temperature of the (river) water in the classroom," fourth-grader Nicole Telles said. "It's better out here. I know the river now."

The trip nearly didn't happen, though. Earlier, state budget cuts hit the Tuolumne River Trust, forcing the river protection organization to reduce staff and eliminate educational programs like this one, called Trekking the Tuolumne.

But some people in Waterford — members of the River Park commission, the Waterford Historical Society, the Lions Club, the schools and parents — refused to give up. They raised about half of the $5,000 needed to pay for instructors, buses, materials and lunch, with the trust picking up the remainder. It allowed more than 100 children to gain a better understanding of the river that runs alongside their town.

I found it interesting that the field trip took place the morning after California voters essentially told the governor and state legislators to enter financial rehab. Five of the six propositions got crushed, and the only one that passed prohibits legislators from getting raises when there is a budget deficit.

Typically, politicians get elected by promising to make our communities safer, improve our schools and be more fiscally responsible.

Then, through collective bickering, they proceed to mismanage the state into utter financial chaos. With their addictive borrowing and spending habits so blatantly and bluntly rejected Tuesday by the voters, they now must cut spending by $21 billion. What will they lop?

Try the very things they promised to improve while getting elected. That means drastic cuts to cities, counties and schools that will reduce the quality of public safety, public and mental health, and education. It means job losses by the thousands. For some folks, it's going to feel like getting acupuncture using rusty railroad spikes instead of fine needles.

And I suspect that when the cutting is done, politicians' cronies will continue to draw six-figure salaries for serving on unnecessary boards while the courthouses are forced to close one extra day a week, police and fire departments are woefully understaffed and the schools sardine-pack 40 kids into every classroom because so many teaching jobs were cut.

(Ah, me of little faith ... )

So it would seem like a fledgling science program like Trekking the Tuolumne is doomed, right?

Maybe not. The state's budget mess will demand more out of more people who want their children to receive a quality education: more contributions to fund- raising groups, more volunteerism and more parental participation.

"If we're going to do this again next year, the parental involvement will have to be there," said Megan Gwin, a teacher at Whitehead. "This was our first year doing it. I'll be devastated if it's the only year."

Students from schools in Modesto and Salida have studied at five sites along the Tuolumne, and it's been adapted for Oakdale and Knights Ferry schools to use on the Stanislaus River as well.

Lynn Hansen, a retired Modesto Junior College biology instructor, wrote the Trekking curriculum with the idea of teaching teachers to teach their students. The cost of the program drops dramatically when schools don't need to pay outside instructors and when they can walk to the river. She said students who have been through the program often improve their science test scores. She's convinced that once parents understand how much their children get from these outings, they'll step up and support the efforts.

"I'm really optimistic that people appreciate children's education," she said.

And that students here will continue to use the Tuolumne as a science lab despite the fiscal insanity in Sacramento.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.