Help bring history alive for Washougal students

Washougal middle school teacher Scott Rainey has been leading his eighth-grade Jemtegaard students on a “rite of passage” for nearly two decades. 

Students who can afford the trip — which now costs around $4,000 per person — head to the East Coast with their teacher, peers and chaperones during the summer break to take in some of the most iconic pieces of America’s history, including the United States Capitol, White House and Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.; Times Square, Broadway and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City; the famed Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and the home of President George Washington in Mount Vernon, Virginia. 

“It is an opportunity of a lifetime for most of the student participants,” Cynthia Fahrenkrug, a Washougal special education paraeducator who nominated Rainey for the statewide “citizenship education” award he won earlier this year, said of the annual East Coast field trip. “Many develop a far deeper appreciation of our history, and the progress and evolution unique to our country.”

Unfortunately, many of Rainey’s Washougal students who would like to go on the annual “rite of passage” trip cannot afford the steep costs associated with flying across the country and staying in some of the nation’s highest-priced cities. 

“I’ve said a million times that if I won the lottery, I would gladly write a check out of my own pocket for any kid who could not afford it because I’ve seen just how powerful travel is is for kids in terms of opening their eyes to what the world is and the things beyond their small community,” Rainey recently told The Post-Record.

Rainey has taken it upon himself to launch a nonprofit fundraising organization, East County Student Travel, to help raise money to benefit Washougal students who need help paying for the annual East Coast field trip. 

“There’s a big world out there, and it’s pretty awesome and amazing, and there’s great things to see, so I want to give as many kids as possible the chance to do that,” Rainey explained. 

We are hopeful Rainey’s nonprofit will pull in enough money to fund every student who wants to go on the annual trip and would encourage local businesses, individuals and charitable organizations to consider contributing to Rainey’s East County Student Travel fundraising organization. 

Research shows young people experience a wide range of benefits from traveling outside their hometowns, exploring art and historical museums and, especially, meeting with people who have led vastly different lives from their own. 

In fact, a 2013 study by the Wagner Group (the New York-based market research company, not the Russian mercenary group accused of war crimes) showed that adults who reported taking an educational trip during their middle- or high-school years had gained benefits over those who had not taken education trips during that same critical-development time period: over 50% had better grades than those who did not travel, 80% showed greater interest in their school studies, 57% of the people who had traveled between the ages of 12 and 18 grew into adults whose children went to college, and even those who had only traveled within the United States during their formative years showed higher earning potential and made about $5,000 a year more than the non-travelers. 

The National Education Association and other educational experts have noted that field trips are especially important for at-risk and disadvantaged students. 

Field trips give diverse and financially-in-need students equal opportunity to experience things outside the classroom that their families may not be able to afford,” the executive director of Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) and SYTA’s Youth Foundation told the National Education Association. Today’s students are visual learners, and a field trip lets them touch, feel and listen to what they’re learning about, which helps them build on classroom instruction, gain a better understanding of topics, build cultural understanding and tolerance, and expose them to worlds outside their own.”

Other studies have shown field trips help students build their empathy, tolerance and critical-thinking skills and allow students to better understand what life was like for people who lived in a different place or time (something known as “historical empathy”). 

This “historical empathy” skill is desperately needed in our society right now. 

As journalists, historians and progressive politicians have noted, the far-right (and even more mainstream Republicans) have been actively trying to alter our nation’s history classrooms. 

“Nowadays, Republicans are hellbent on re-litigating seemingly every battle they’ve lost over the decades.  In some cases, over a century’s worth of progress is being targeted for elimination.

They don’t just want to “stop” history —they want to erase it,” Amanda Marcotte, a senior politics writer at Salon, pointed out in a March 11, 2022 Salon article. “Indeed, that is what this ‘critical race theory’ hoax that has the right all riled up is all about. Under the guise of battling “critical race theory” — which is almost never taught in public schools — Republicans are trying to ban books that cover the civil rights movement  and intimidating history teachers into pretending the 50s and 60s never happened.”
Education Week, an independent news organization covering K-12 education in the U.S., agrees.  

Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom, according to an Education Week analysis of active state bills,” the news site pointed out in a February 2022 article. “What started in early 2021 as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called ‘divisive’ ways or taking sides on ‘controversial’ issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist, according to an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions.”

With attacks on our nation’s true history happening inside classrooms from Florida to New Hampshire to Missouri, we should all be concerned about the state of America’s schools and its students — who are, after all, the people we will depend on to teach our future generations, heal our bodies, engineer our bridges, build our homes and take care of us in our senior years. Chipping in for what might be, for many Washougal students, the trip of a lifetime, is one small way we can help ensure local students — at least those lucky enough to go through Rainey’s history classes — will benefit from traveling outside their comfort zone and experiencing America’s history up close and in-person. 

For more information about how to contribute to Rainey’s East County Student Travel organization, email wasougalstudenttravel@gmail.com.