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Goodbye Buses, Hello Virtual Field Trips: Tech Takes El Cajon Students Beyond The Classroom

Third-graders at Bostonia Language Academy watch a virtual tour of the KPBS station, May 29, 2018.
Jacqueline Serrano
Third-graders at Bostonia Language Academy watch a virtual tour of the KPBS station, May 29, 2018.

A row of thumbnail images on an electronic tablet show 51 classrooms in the Cajon Valley Union School District. Together, they represent more than 1,200 students waiting and watching.

“So we have Miss Knierim. That’s Blossom Valley. We have Miss Brandt. This is Rios,” said Ed Hidalgo, scrolling through the tiny boxes.

Hidalgo is chief innovation and engagement officer for the district and is helping me prepare to give a virtual tour of the KPBS station.


The platform making this all happen is called Nepris. The online tool lets schools access a full catalog of workplace tours. They can also tap into their local community to schedule live tours like the one I’m giving. All it takes is a tablet or computer with internet access.

Goodbye Buses, Hello Virtual Field Trips: Tech Takes El Cajon Students Beyond The Classroom

The technology comes as more educators are trying to link their lessons to the outside world but are having more trouble doing so in traditional ways. The big, yellow bus has become a prime target for school budget cuts, meaning students are going on fewer field trips.

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“There’s many students who have never seen the ocean, so we often say, ‘How does a child aspire to a career they don’t know exists?’” Hidalgo said of the eastern San Diego County district, where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

“With Nepris we’re able to connect business professionals to the classroom virtually,” he said. “For that reason, students get excited, they see what’s possible. Even if it’s only 20 minutes away, a student can see there’s someone like (them) out in the world of work.”


In this case, he couldn’t be more right. I grew up in El Cajon and attended some of the schools where students were tuning in. And it was at one of those schools where I learned that I love to write and started considering a career in journalism.

Hidalgo said that kind of early insight into one’s interests lays the groundwork for success in school and career, and it’s why the district invested in Nepris.

“What we know is that interests have the highest correlation to career satisfaction, performance and income,” Hidalgo said. “So if we can help students understand how their interests connect to the world of work, there’s a greater chance they’ll select a more aligned course of study that aligns to a future career.”

Schools pay $3,000 to $5,000 annually for unlimited access to these industry chats. That’s compared to roughly $300 to bus one class of students someplace just one time.

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Since January, Cajon Valley has offered 113 of these virtual field trips — from the forensics lab at the El Cajon Police Department to the district’s very own central cafeteria.

The district can’t say yet whether its efforts have improved academic outcomes; it’s only been using Nepris for a year. With the help of the University of San Diego, the district plans to study the impact over three years.

A two-year study of a state pilot program that similarly connected classrooms to careers, but at the high school level, found higher graduation rates among program participants. Standardized testing results were mixed.

But Meridian Elementary School teacher Ronnie Peterson said he’s seen its impact firsthand.

“I’ve always tried to make sure that during math, if I’m teaching about area or perimeter, that I can tell them, ‘Hey this will help you when you build a fence, or this will help you if you lay carpet or tile,’” he said. “I’ve always tried to make education relevant, but this makes it very relevant because now they’re starting to see what’s ahead. They can set goals for their future.

“I have one student who wants to be an executive chef, so he’s taking cooking classes right now,” Peterson continued. “He’s got his goal for the future and his short-term goal right now.”

After my virtual tour, we ask Peterson’s students if anyone wants to become a journalist. Fifth-grader Mary Azabo weighs in.

“I want to be either a doctor or a lawyer,” she said. “A doctor because I’m really interested in the heart and how it functions and stuff, and a lawyer because I just love to argue.”

Luckily, the Nepris platform lets me talk with students in other classrooms, too. And across town at my alma mater, a student steps in front of the webcam and into one of those thumbnails on my tablet screen.

“So, I’m from Rios,” she said, “and I can see myself growing up as a reporter just like you.”

Goodbye Buses, Hello Virtual Field Trips: Tech Takes El Cajon Students Beyond The Classroom
The big, yellow bus is often a prime target for school budget cuts, which means students are going on fewer field trips. The Cajon Valley Union School District may have found a solution.