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Steering ArtsBusXpress: La Jollan Julia McMeans drives home the importance of field trips for all students

La Jolla resident Julia McMeans is the new executive director of ArtsBusXpress.
La Jolla resident Julia McMeans is the new executive director of ArtsBusXpress and says her aim is to send every underprivileged student in San Diego County on a field trip.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With an eye on equity, La Jolla resident Julia McMeans, the new executive director of local nonprofit ArtsBusXpress, is looking to raise money and awareness so all can profit from the benefits of school field trips.

McMeans took on the lead role at ArtsBusXpress as its first executive director a few months ago after five years as director of education at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

Before that, McMeans lived in Philadelphia, where she was assistant director of education and interim director of learning programs at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology after years of teaching in schools.

The museum work “started my trajectory into nonprofits and museums,” McMeans said.

The mission of ArtsBusXpress, or ABX, is to “enrich student learning one field trip at a time, with or without the bus,” McMeans said.

ABX raises funds to send students in kindergarten through 12th grade from any public or charter school in San Diego County on field trips to local venues.

ABX prioritizes Title I students, who are from families who meet federal income standards for poverty.

Of the 530,000 public and charter school students in the county, “more than half of them are Title I kids,” McMeans said.

To qualify for ArtsBusXpress funding, a teacher applies via ABX’s website for a specific excursion.

ABX also can fund an outreach program that would send an expert from a museum or another institution to a school to conduct an activity, McMeans said.

“This helps everybody, because if you are a farther-flung school district, like in Borrego Springs or Escondido, you’re not going to come all the way” into coastal or downtown San Diego due to the travel time, she said.

ABX has partnered with 100 venues in the county, McMeans said, including the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Some of the partner organizations are large institutions like those above or the museums in Balboa Park, while others are small history centers particular to a town or region.

Partnership doesn’t cost the local institutions anything; the advantage to them is the ability to provide students with access to their programs, McMeans said.

Funding excursions for Title I students promotes equity among all students, she said.

“Imagine having to say a kid’s financial circumstances [are] the reason they don’t get to do something that another kid gets to do,” McMeans said. “The simplest way to create equity is to level the financial playing field for students.”

If a teacher requests a field trip to an organization but can’t afford the cost of transportation and the visit, and the institution doesn’t have funding to offer a trip, ABX can step in.

The nonprofit has been sending students on field trips for 20 years and funded trips for 10,000 students last year, McMeans said.

As of Sept. 30, ABX had 5,000 students booked for trips this school year. After COVID-19 restrictions limited field trips the past two years, “teachers are really eager to get their kids back out into the community,” McMeans said.

But the increase in requests means strain on the ABX budget, she said.

“It’s just a constant challenge,” she said, as each field trip costs about $25 per student.

McMeans said she would like to fund “every single Title I kid in the county,” starting with those in the San Diego Unified School District.

“The Title I need is so tremendous,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. Those kids shouldn’t be denied the experience.”

Field trips play a crucial role in education as a complement to classroom activities, McMeans said.

Formal instruction — what teachers do in schools — is “the lyrics; what you do in a museum is like the music that goes with it,” McMeans said. “It gets deeper, it enhances it more, kids get hands on.”

“You can read about the Transcontinental Railroad in your fourth-grade history book,” she added, “but I can actually show you a model of it at the railroad museum and talk to you about it and show you the kinds of trains they used and ... the artifacts they used.”

Institutions and communities also benefit from hosting students who can’t normally visit them, she said. “Museums and science centers and theaters are places where people from different walks of life, different races, different ethnic backgrounds come together.”

For more information, visit artsbusxpress.org or email julia.mcmeans@artsbusxpress.org.