On Saturday July 8th, Laggan Public School will celebrate its 50th anniversary, pushed back three years from its original scheduled date of summer 2020 due to the pandemic. The thriving school, located at the corner of Highway 34 and Laggan Road and set amongst fresh air, blue skies and farmers fields has always enjoyed a role as a community hub and been a draw to parents looking for a top educational opportunity for their children.

One of the great legacies of the school was its two-week spring Florida excursion, which ran every two years from 1978 to 1996. The trip was the brainchild of longtime principal Kent MacSweyn and helped along by head custodian Hugh Allan MacMillan, both of whom commandeered the bus full of grade seven and eight students and adult chaperones from Laggan to Walt Disney World Florida and back, slowing down to visit many different educational sites and attractions along the way.

The Laggan School 50th Anniversary Summer Reunion Committee sat down with former principal Kent MacSweyn, custodian Hugh Allan MacMillan and teacher Peter Steiche, all now retired, at the kitchen table of Kent and Marilyn MacSweyn, as they reflected on the terrific legacy of the trip.

As Kent explains, he gained experience with multi-day excursions with students during his time teaching in Europe, and he brought those insights with him back to Laggan when he was named the schools first principal upon its opening in 1969. The school had taken annual excursions to places like Niagara Falls and Quebec City, and eventually the idea came to Kent for a much more ambitious trip down to Walt Disney World in Florida that would take place in spring of 1978.

“Before we took this first (Florida) excursion, I wanted to present it to the school board to make sure we had permissions and there wouldn’t be any repercussions after,” Kent says.  “And I remember bringing up four students to the board meeting (to help with the presentation)… and they did such a good job. In the minutes that came out of the meeting, one of the Trustees had written up that it was the best presentation they’d had in a long time.  And so they gave us permission.”

The cost of the initial trip was $100 per student the first year, eventually growing to over $400. The students were expected to earn the money themselves during the two and a half year leadup to the trip. The idea was to not unnecessarily burden the community with fundraising, but instead to teach the kids the value of earning, saving and budgeting. Each day of the trip they were allotted a certain amount to spend on meals and personal items. Everyone was allowed to spend the same amount. 

Speaking of the school board support of the trip through the years, Kent adds, “(Trustee) Sam McLeod was a wonderful backer and he would give us an extra $100 so the kids would have extra money for their meal budgets.”

The first trip was not without its hiccups, however. Upon arrival to Disney World in 1978, some students weren’t feeling well so they were taken to a hospital. There, they were diagnosed with scarlet fever and the trip supervisors were told that with a group of kids, it would spread through them rapidly until most of them were infected. They were instructed that all the kids would need 7 days of medication to cure it and prevent further spread.

“We had to take charge,” Kent says. “So we came back (from the hospital) with 31 bottles of medicine, we had to keep control so that kids wouldn’t miss a day and so that they only took one pill per day and not two, etc., so we had 31 bottles of pills on a picnic table (in the Disney World campground) and made sure the kids took them properly… people would walk by and wonder what the heck was going on. But the kids recovered quite quickly.”  In terms of their ability to enjoy the Disney World experience, the affected kids “… weren’t feeling 100 percent but they were well enough to go and they enjoyed it.”

In spite of that scare, there was never any thought of abandoning the trip for future classes.

Kent says, “Before the first excursion, I asked them, ‘how many of you have stayed at a hotel or a motel overnight?’ and it was 3 out of 31. Then we got to the swimming pool and 6 could swim, 25 couldn’t. So when we came back from that- and we’d been in the habit of providing jobs for some of the kids in the area through summer grant programs- we started a summer swim program.”

Peter adds, “That was very successful, having that swim program in the area.”

That summer swim program endured locally for decades, mostly run by high school students and held at private swimming pools graciously donated by families in the Laggan area. Many kids learned how to swim as a result of this initiative, an initiative that came to be because a community area of need was identified during the first Florida excursion and then acted upon.

After the success of the initial trip, the Laggan PS Florida Excursion was off and running for another nine trips, ending after the 1996 excursion. 

From an entry by Kent MacSweyn in the SD&G County Board of Education Newsletter, March 1982, prior to the 1982 excursion:

“The excursion is the culmination of two years of planning and saving by this group… Aims and Objectives were established that were within reach of all members but which at the same time required discipline and commitment. Participation was tied in with behavioral and achievement objectives and dependent on the individual’s ability to earn and save the projected two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar participation fee.”

As was stressed, no student would miss the trip due to lack of funds. In the event of such a scenario, there were Good Samaritans in the community who would cover the cost anonymously.

The day-to-day itinerary was mapped out for the students in work booklets and school sessions where they learned about the places they were going to visit. The trip was integrated into their school curriculums. The 1982 SD&G Board Newsletter summarizes the day-to-day stops. Some examples to illustrate the scope of it all, pulled from the same newsletter entry:

“A half day in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area provides us with an opportunity to see and learn about the Amish Community and we have arranged for a guide to board our bus and provide commentary and explanation as we visit their farms and see them going about their everyday life.”

“…Sunday sees us attending morning church services before heading on… for an afternoon of history in the authentically restored Colony of Williamsburg.”

“Wednesday will see the air of excitement mount as we visit Cape Kennedy for a tour of the Space Museum and Launch facilities before continuing the last sixty miles to Disneyworld and a 4:00 p.m. arrival at our camp in Disney’s Fort Wilderness.”

“The next three days will be the highlight of two and a half years of planning and saving… our campsite location puts us in the center of the action and provides easy access to Magic Kingdom, River Country, Discovery Island and all the attractions of that Wonderful World of Disney.”

“…we continue northward to Lake City and have lunch on the banks of the Suwannee River before visiting the Stephen Foster Center.’

Other historic attractions that the group visited included the Civil War sites and museums at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania…  the White House and US Capitol buildings, National Mall, Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the eternal flame, and the Smithsonian Museum, all on a Washington, DC stop… and thoroughbred horse farms and the Kentucky State Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky on the way back from Florida.

One of the trip highlights was a church service at First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virgina started by slaves and freed blacks in 1776 and thought to be the first black church in the US.  As Peter recollects, “Kent says ‘the parents back home will expect us to have their children in church on Sunday morning’ so we looked around for one and this was the one we found.  You could imagine the (congregations) surprise seeing all these white children filing in. But it was a unique experience. There was a lot of emotion in the service. It was unlike anything they’d seen before.  (Members of the congregation) would go to the front and thank God and thank the community for helping them through difficult times (during the service).”

According to Peter, “Afterwards, they had a basement where they had post-service snacks set up. They invited us down for that post service snack and I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing’… we felt welcomed. And we were.”

It was a place they would return to again and again on future trips, and a cherished relationship was formed between the school and the church.

Amongst many memories, Kent recalls being in St. Augustine, up the coast from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, watching a satellite launch on television and then the students looking out their windows and seeing the actual satellite heading up into the sky not far from them.

The St. Augustine stop was spread out over a couple of days right before Disney World, and included a visit to an alligator park, an old Spanish fort and some time to relax on the beach and swim in the Atlantic ocean, a highlight for many on a trip jam-packed with highlights. One trip to the ocean led to an oft-retold story from the excursion- the bus getting stuck on the beach. As Hughie explains, the tide was starting to creep closer and closer to the bus while they were trying to figure out how to get themselves unstuck. “Kent says, ‘Hughie, do you know what’s going to happen? That water is going to come in and we’ll float out and be in the ocean!’” Eventually, they positioned plywood beneath the tires and with an extra helpful push from the kids, the bus got out. Hughie adds, “I heard later on that the word had been sent (to the local authorities) that the bus was stuck so they arrived later (to tow us out) and the bus was already gone.” He laughs. “I bet they didn’t know how we’d gotten out.”  

Looking back, Kent MacSweyn gestures to Hugh Allan MacMillan and says, “If we have one man here who was the determinant on whether or not we would continue (the trip), it was Hugh Allan who would drive the bus and we didn’t have to worry (about anything).”

Peter adds, “That was a real resource, having Hugh Allan on staff. He became the driver along with Kent, they took turns but (Hughie) did most of the driving.”

“Driving that bus was quite an undertaking when you think of it,” Kent continued. “(For example) I had been to Washington before, Hughie hadn’t, he was driving the school bus. To go into Washington city with a school bus and to go do the tourist route… I don’t know whether I could’ve gotten another driver to do that.”

“I don’t think we ever had any accidents,” Hugh admits. 

“We were in good hands, Hughie,” Peter says. 

The bus had the back rows removed prior to the trip and mattresses laid down to allow rotating groups of students to uncoil and relax for an hour or so at a time, which was much appreciated on some of the longer driving days.

And according to Kent, while they were away on the trip, Hughie’s family looked after his custodial duties at the school so that no extra cost was incurred to the school or the Board, another example of the Laggan community pitching in selflessly, all for the benefit of the students.

Speaking about the seamless execution of the trips in spite of all the potential challenges, Peter Steiche says, “The kids behaved very well on all those trips… If we had had doubts, we wouldn’t have had those trips. But we trusted those kids and they trusted us. We had just a wonderful student body. People were always commenting to us on these trips on how well behaved our kids were. They would say, where are these kids from? We took it for granted, it was expected. It was a different culture in this area.” 

In response, Hugh Allen points to Kent MacSweyn as the primary reason. “I think it had a lot to do with this man right across here,” he said- a sentiment no doubt shared by countless students and parents- and Peter nods. There was a custom of discipline and respect in the school, a custom of earned student achievement through effort and work, and a standard of high expectations that started with the principal and permeated down. It’s a custom that continues at Laggan to this day. “He was consistently being fair to all people, he didn’t show favoritism and when he said anything he meant it and he followed through.”

“I think the trip helped to set a standard of discipline in the school from a young age because if you didn’t behave, you wouldn’t get to go,” Kent says and adds that the trip wouldn’t have lasted without buy-in from the staff. The schedules of the teachers who stayed behind were disrupted since they had to accommodate any students from grade 7 or 8 who had decided not to go into their own classrooms, and he credits them.  He also credits the parents who volunteered their time to come along and act as supervisors alongside the school staff.

The Laggan PS students from those years had access to an opportunity that probably no other school in North America had at the time and maybe since. In terms of those memories, Peter explains “… it’ll be there for the rest of their lives, the essence of the trip, the good times… it was incredible. I sometimes speak to people I know about the trip, what we did, and they can’t believe it.”

With a laugh, Hughie mentions the incredulous guards at the American border upon being told that a busload of kids was heading down to Walt Disney World on a two-week school trip. “Their eyes got big and they said, ‘WHAT?!?’”

“But we were confident it was going to be okay…” Peter continues.  “It was extremely well planned and prepared for over two years.”

“We never thought it was going to be otherwise,” Kent affirms. “The students (who went) are still talking about it (to this day) and I meet them and they bring it up.”

Peter concludes, “If you are going to remember anything from elementary school it’s going to be that trip.”

Special thanks go out to Kent MacSweyn, Hugh Allan MacMillan, Peter Steiche and all of the other teachers, parent supervisors and volunteers who made this trip possible for so many students over the years and helped to create memories to last a lifetime. How lucky we all were!

The Laggan School 50th Anniversary Summer Reunion will take place on Saturday, July 8th at Laggan Public School. The Committee will have a room dedicated to memories and items from the Florida Excursion, as well as lots of other pictures and memorabilia dedicated to ‘Laggan Through the Decades’. There will be t-shirts and ball caps available for purchase, an afternoon of fun and events for the kids including a petting zoo, face painting and games. The school will be open for touring from 1 to 9 and there will be live entertainment throughout the evening, headlined by Fridge Full of Empties at 9. The beer tent will be open to the public at 7. There is no admission charge for any of these events. There will be a cocktail hour and buffet style supper from 5:30 to 7:30; tickets are required for this and can be purchased from event organizers (see ad). Teachers past and present will gather in late afternoon and hold a Meet and Greet in the gym between 4 and 5.

Come on over, say hi to your former principals, teachers and support staff, reconnect with old friends, share memories as you tour the school and browse through the memorabilia, and enjoy all of the events of the day and night! The event is open to all, not just former staff and students but also to friends, neighbors and interested parties. Hope to see you there!