Community service programs—when combined with curriculum—not only promote community values and good citizenship, they may also protect students from risky health behaviors during adolescence. When New York City middle school students’ community service work (three hours per week) was combined with health instruction, both their violent behavior and their high-risk sexual activity dropped significantly.
That was one of the central findings of EDC/HHD’s Reach for Health study, directed by Lydia O’Donnell—the first study to evaluate community service specifically in terms of its ability to reduce violence and foster healthy behaviors among economically disadvantaged urban youth.
O’Donnell’s research team, funded by the National Institute for Nursing Research and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, worked with two middle schools serving 68 classes of seventh and eighth graders, including the bilingual and special education classes. The students were divided into three groups: One received a health curriculum only, another participated in the combined curriculum-community service program, and the third served as a control group.
Classroom instruction was based on EDC/HHD’s Teenage Health Teaching Modules, one of the most widely used health curricula in the nation, and several other nationally recognized programs. The curriculum focused on three primary health risks faced by inner-city adolescents: drug and alcohol use, violence, and sexual behaviors that can result in HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy.
The study found that in six months, rates of sexual activity increased by 8.2 percent among the control students, compared with 3.4 and 4.4 percent increases among curriculum-only and community youth service participants. Among those students who had never had sex before the study, only 13 percent of the community youth service participants reported having had sex by follow-up, compared with 17.3 percent of the curriculum-only students and 21.2 percent of the control students. Students in the community service group were significantly less likely to report recent sexual intercourse at follow-up than youth in the control group. In the study on violence, eighth grade students who participated in the community service curriculum intervention reported significantly less violence, while there was no reported difference for seventh graders. The research team attributed this difference to the broader community youth service component for the eighth graders, which included more field placements and additional orientation lessons.
Originally published on September 1, 2001