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Field Trips Today: Museums, but Also Wastewater Plants

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at how school field trips are evolving. We’ll also find out what Gov. Kathy Hochul said as she signed a bill that called for a state task force to consider reparations for the lasting impact of slavery.

The fifth-graders on a school field trip stepped into a large, noisy room. The girls held their noses. The boys were wowed.

They were in the stinkiest part of a wastewater treatment plant on Long Island.

That schoolchildren were in that room was an indication of how field trips have evolved as science curriculums have changed. The children, from Oceanside School 8 in Oceanside, N.Y., had been learning about water and what happens when dirty water at home goes down the drain or the toilet.

“This gives them the opportunity to see firsthand something that they are just reading about in class,” said Lauren Sternberg, the communications manager at the treatment plant, one of three in Nassau County operated by the conglomerate Veolia under a long-term contract.

The plant, in East Rockaway, N.Y., is a relatively new field trip destination. The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan is not.

Field trips to the museum have been a ritual for generations of New York City schoolchildren — as many as 400,000 children visit the museum in school and camp groups every year. Lisa Gugenheim, the museum’s director, remembers her first trip to the museum — “I’m pretty sure it was in second grade,” she said.

But since the opening of a $465 million addition last year, the museum has broadened its offerings — not just what student groups can see, but how much time they can spend looking. Gugenheim called a pilot program that began last month “the evolution of the field trip.”

The traditional field trip lasts one day. The pilot program lets classes treat the entire museum like a classroom every day for a week.

“This is not just meeting a scientist,” Gugenheim said. “It’s having a program that connects the classroom to the museum to the science. That’s the work of being a museum today — wanting to influence the lives of young people not just on a day out of school but for their lifetimes.”

Among the first to go to the museum each day for a week were 35 fifth-graders and four teachers from the New American Academy at Roberto Clemente State Park. They were studying how climate change affects life in the oceans, Gugenheim said. But they also spent time visiting a new elephants exhibit, estimating the size of a dinosaur and learning about the diversity of insects.

“This was unlike what any single field trip could accomplish,” Gugenheim said.

At the wastewater treatment plant — where the plant manager, Joseph Cappetti, led the tour — students watched wide metal arms slim out debris, like paper towels, that had flowed in with the dirty water. That prompted a student to ask a question: “Do you find any dangerous things?”

Walter Dobkowski, the environmental health safety specialist at the plant, mentioned hypodermic needles — “I found one in nine years here,” he said. Cappetti said that toys used to appear, but now, “everything’s digital, so you don’t see as many plastic toys come through here.”

Cappetti said the group had asked smart questions, like one about centrifugal force after he said that was how grit, rocks and dirt are separated from the water in a giant tank. (Those solids are then pumped out from the bottom of the tank.)

“Listen, they love it,” Laura Cassar-James, one of the teachers, said. Anthony Rosenberg, 10, clearly did.

“I want to work here,” he declared, “because I know a lot more stuff now.”


Weather

A bright sunny day with temperatures in the mid-40s. The evening will remain clear with temperatures in the mid-30s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Dec. 25 (Christmas Day).


Ever wonder who is behind the food and souvenir shops in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island? My colleague Patrick McGeehan has the answer:

Bradford Hill’s family has been selling souvenirs to the Statue of Liberty’s visitors for more than 90 years.

The National Park Service announced on Tuesday that the family’s company, Evelyn Hill Inc., had beaten some of the nation’s biggest food-service operators to win a new contract for the food and retail concessions on Liberty Island and Ellis Island. The contract will run through 2036, the 150th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s dedication.

Hill’s company, named after his grandmother, has weathered some rough times since his grandfather set up a cart on a dock near the statue in 1931.

Then, as now, Evelyn Hill’s business is entirely dependent on tourists who arrive on ferries from Lower Manhattan or New Jersey, so economic crises like the coronavirus pandemic can be disastrous.

The park service recorded 3.1 million visitors last year, down from 4.2 million in 2019, the last full year before the start of the pandemic. Hill, 67, said business had been better lately than it was before Covid-19 crippled tourism. In 2019, the concessions took in about $32 million. That total plunged to $4.2 million in 2020, park service documents show.

The park service told companies bidding on the contract that they could expect annual sales of about $40 million, with the federal government keeping about $8 million before taxes.

The shops are staffed by about 120 workers at this time of the year. The number swells to nearly 300 during the summer months, Hill said, adding that he was working on ways to speed purchases during especially crowded times.

“People want to see the sights, not wait in line for food,” he said.


New York will set up a task force as part of an ambitious effort to address the state’s history of slavery and racism.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, signed a bill directing a new commission to study the history of slavery and its harmful consequences, among them discrimination in housing, inequality in incomes and bias in policing. She called on New Yorkers “to be the patriots and rebuke — and not excuse — our role in benefiting from the institution of slavery.” New York outlawed slavery in 1827.

With the task force, New York will join California and Illinois at the forefront of reparations efforts.

My colleagues Grace Ashford and Luis Ferré-Sadurni write that it is too early to tell what type of restitution, if any, the task force might recommend for descendants of enslaved people. In California, a multibillion-dollar price tag is threatening to thwart the reparations project.

Hochul acknowledged the political risks of jumping into a conversation about historical wrongs, although she said that standing against racism meant “more than giving people a simple apology 150 years later.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton appeared at Hochul’s bill-signing ceremony and thanked her for having the “audacity and courage” to support the bill, which the Assembly and the State Senate, both controlled by Democrats, passed in June.

But Robert Ortt, who is the State Senate minority leader, said that New York had atoned for slavery with “blood and lives” during the Civil War. Ortt, whose district includes Niagara Falls, also said in a statement that the commission was “divisive” and “unworkable.”


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

I wandered into a corner restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen on a Sunday evening during a two-week trip to the city.

Everything on the menu looked good. As I was trying to decide on which soup to order, a bowl arrived for a man who was sitting alone next to me.

“Which soup is that?” I said after he’d taken his first taste.

I immediately regretted asking. This was New York, and my chattiness felt out of place. Don’t be annoying, I thought to myself.

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