By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Jarret Dotson said he might have a hard time falling asleep tonight because he knows he will leave Friday for a nine-day trip that will take him onto what he considers hallowed ground.
“Just to think that I will be in the exact same room that Thomas Jefferson has been in, that I’m walking where he walked,” said Jarret, an eighth-grader at Baxter Springs Middle School.
“That’s pretty cool to think about that,” he said.
Jarret and 164 other eighth-graders from Baxter Springs, Riverton, Galena, Columbus and Uniontown, Kan.; Quapaw and Miami, Okla.; Berryville and Springdale, Ark.; Kansas City and New York City were chosen for an annual trip known as the Colonial Williamsburg Experience.
Five charitable trusts cover the entire bill for each student, teacher and superintendent — including a personalized jacket, two sweatshirts with the trip logo, a digital camera and a journal.
The event was founded in 1991 and continues to be organized by John Archer, a Joplin, Mo., native who lives in Baxter Springs.
“I got to go to Williamsburg (Va.) as a kid with my parents, so I convinced the charitable trusts to start doing this trip,” Archer said. “It was maybe 20 to 25 kids, from Springdale and Galena, that first year, and then we added schools and it’s continued to grow.”
The trip will take the students on a bus ride “back in time,” said Jarret’s history teacher, Joy Crockett. This will be her sixth year to accompany students on the trip. Fifteen of the 87 eighth-graders in Baxter Springs were selected.
The group will begin sightseeing at Jamestown, Va.; go on to Yorktown, Va.; tour Colonial Williamsburg, including the Governor’s Palace; take in Monticello and Mount Vernon, Va.; tour Arlington National Cemetery; see the memorials in Washington, D.C.; tour the U.S. Capitol; take in Fort McHenry in Maryland; tour the USS Constellation in Baltimore; and wind up at Valley Forge and Gettysburg, Pa.
The schools start the selection procedure the week after school starts.
“It’s pretty sought after by eighth-graders; they know it’s coming starting in sixth grade,” said Debbie Nichols, who will accompany Riverton students for the 12th time. This year, 10 of Riverton’s 67 students were selected.
During the procedure, student records are evaluated for grades, discipline and attendance, and they go through an interview.
“I’m thankful to have been chosen. It’s the trip of a lifetime,” said Shelby Edwards, a Riverton eighth-grader. “I want to see Arlington National Cemetery. It’s a really important part of our history. I just think of all of those people who were so dedicated to the United States that they gave their life for us.”
Teachers at each school spend several weeks leading up to the trip preparing the students for not only what they will see and why it’s important, but also the etiquette they’ll need to observe when traveling, when rooming in hotels with students they just met, and when eating in restaurants.
For many of the students, particularly from small rural districts, it’s the first time out of the area.
“Quite a few of the kids we take, they wouldn’t have the financial wherewithal to do this,” said Dennis Burke, Baxter Springs superintendent who is a trip chaperone each year. “And even income not being a factor, we go to places less and less traveled to by families these days. Disney World, ball tournaments, beaches seem to take precedence. Even kids who are well-traveled have rarely gone to these places.
“It’s pretty unique. Even in talking with people from big schools across the state — there isn’t anyone who does this. Never is the trip, in its entirety, paid for, nor do they attempt to take this many kids from multiple schools. It’s just phenomenal.”
Brian Smith, superintendent at Galena, said 12 of his students will be going this year, and he’s excited to see them interact with living history interpreters and see in person what they’ve read about in textbooks.
“The impact I see is students getting in touch with history — living history, where you’re actually there, touching and feeling and part of it,” said Smith, who has been a trip chaperone for nine years.
“But it’s also leadership training — preparing students to go on, and that one person can make a difference.”
One of his students, P.J. Sarwinski, said he worked hard to get chosen for the trip ever since he began middle school.
“I’m just thrilled I got chosen to go,” P.J. said. “I love history and social studies, and am so proud I get to experience it in person.”
Archer said a study done two years ago by Pittsburg State University indicated that all students who have gone on the trip have gone on to pursue a college degree, except for two who went into the military.
“There’s no question it’s made a difference,” Archer said.
Even years later, they remember.
“I see the jackets all over the place — in restaurants, a young man who was a waiter there said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you took me on a trip to Williamsburg,’” Archer said “They remember it a long, long time.”