A springtime stroll on the boardwalk in the mucky woods behind the Forest Avenue School in Hudson, Massachusetts, will reveal a natural treasure. A vernal pool, a temporary seasonal breeding ground for amphibians, is teeming with life.
But the pool is evidence of another local treasure: It was discovered and is now protected by fourth graders, their teachers, and local businesses and organizations who came together in an innovative combination of science class, student service, and corporate volunteerism.
All around the country, educators and school administrators are taking notice of the success of such programs, sometimes called service-learning, as ways to enrich their academic programs. Increasingly, they are embracing programs that link academics to volunteer or service experiences in the community-not as an “add on” but as a fundamental component of education.
EDC, with the Academy for Educational Development (AED), is providing overall coordination for a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Service-Learning Initiative, Learning In Deed: Making a Difference Through Service-Learning. A project of broad sweep, the $13.5 million initiative aims to increase national visibility and support for service-learning, bolster policy, improve practice, and facilitate communication among leaders in the field.
According to EDC Vice President Nancy Ames, the project is unique in the connections it makes between service-learning and academics. In her book, Changing Middle Schools (co-authored with Edward Miller), Ames describes the powerful learning potential of school-based community service:
Service projects … provide opportunities for young adolescents to try out more adult roles and to learn firsthand about themselves, their peers, and those whom they serve. Through community service, students also discover the possibility that they can make a difference in the world around them.
While the primary motivation for doing service is helping others, young adolescents often get more than they give—personal satisfaction, recognition, respect, and a deep appreciation for the value of serving others.
The Kellogg project provides a national platform for that message. The initiative features six components-operated by six collaborators-that run simultaneously:
- A National Commission, managed by EDC, will publicize and build awareness about service-learning.
- A Stakeholders Network, managed by AED, will bring together leaders in the field and build bridges to communities that haven’t typically been involved in service-learning.
- The Policy and Practice Project, operated by the Education Commission for the States, will engage 5-10 states in self-study and implementation of new policies and practices.
- The Research Network, managed by RMC Research Corporation, will bring together researchers to build a knowledge base regarding effective policy and practice.
- APCO Associates, a public relations and marketing firm, will conduct a public education campaign and inform policymakers.
- The Brandeis University Center for Human Resources will conduct an evaluation of the project.
According to Leslie Hergert, EDC project director, the key to effective service-learning is matching academic opportunities with issues or problems in the community. “Many students learn better when there’s a purpose to the learning and when people are counting on them,” says Hergert. “The most effective programs promote service that meets real community needs.”
The Hudson project is a good example. At each grade level in Hudson, teachers design age-appropriate service activities and link them to classroom instruction. Kindergarten teachers work with their students to organize fundraising activities for charitable groups. The children’s efforts are linked to a social studies unit on community.
To deepen comprehension of the science curriculum, the Hudson fourth graders pursued the environmental field studies program. Ninth graders, with both their social studies and English teachers, are seeking out service-learning that creates a just society.
Across grade levels, teachers’ efforts are bolstered by a committee that offers resources, guidelines, ideas, and community contacts. Service-learning, when done well, has a profound impact on young people’s development. Numerous studies over many decades have shown that when students are involved in service-learning opportunities, their school performance improves; they develop self-awareness, empathy, and social skills; they are better prepared for work; and they develop as responsible, committed citizens. New EDC research also reports that community service, when linked to a health curriculum, leads to a marked reduction in violence and risky sexual behaviors.
Developing the skills and knowledge to make a positive difference in the world has been an education goal throughout this century, though only recently with the label “service-learning.” Education pioneer John Dewey’s concept of “associated learning” in the 1930s evolved through the 1960s and ’70s with national programs such as the National Center for Service-Learning.
Today, “an opportunity to give back through community service” is Goal V on the volunteerism agenda set by the President’s Summit for America’s Future. While the vocabularies might differ, the bottom line is the same: real-world application of knowledge.
That notion is evident among a class of seventh graders in Piedmont, South Carolina. Students have turned routine visits of the local Meals on Wheels Program into a warm and enriching weekly occasion. Classmates assist with delivery of meals, share a piece of creative writing with the elders, and offer them a “goodie” basket.
The companion classroom activities focus on creative writing, which includes skill building, peer review, and reading to the class. In class, students also read about senior citizens, the diseases that affect them, and how to be helpful during their visits.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, a service-learning project cleverly addressed both the learning needs of students and the social needs of the neighboring retirement home. Few students in the seventh grade writing class were focused on schoolwork, and most resisted reading aloud to their peers. Next door, senior citizens complained about the noisy schoolyard but also craved company and interest in their life stories.
The teacher put both problems together and created an inter-generational solution. In the project that emerged, students and seniors created writing partnerships. Students worked to communicate their thoughts to both their peers and the seniors who offered feedback and support. The teacher noted improvements in both groups’ ability to communicate, and student writing skills and group behavior improved significantly.
But despite its many benefits, service-learning is rarely used and not well-implemented in the public schools; programs typically are isolated or small-scale, disconnected from the curriculum, or without institutional support. In some communities, parents and teachers debate whether students can afford time away from the classroom.
The prospect of expenses, planning time, and management are a deterrent to others. “Service-learning is not very expensive, but it’s not free,” notes Hergert. “Some teachers might balk at the logistical details. Schools that are most successful are the ones with a coordinator who can make contacts and arrangements. It could be done by a part-time staff person, or one full-time person could cover a few schools.”
One of the most exciting opportunities with the Kellogg initiative, according to both Ames and Hergert, is the opportunity to extend service-learning beyond its traditional white middle class suburban setting into a broader variety of communities. “It’s an important part of the project to diversify the field-racially, ethnically, and culturally,” says Hergert.
In Alabama, the quest for more information about the history of African American participation in the community turned into a multi-year, multi-grade project that enabled students to research and record that history, create plays about the lives of their ancestors, and write books about forgotten heroes. With community support, they restored and rebuilt a long-neglected African American cemetery.
Service-learning is “bipartisan,” notes Hergert. “It can be supported by people with varying value systems. It embraces values about democracy, helping people, and being responsible for our actions for and with other people.”
As Hudson superintendent Sheldon Berman notes, “Social consciousness and social responsibility are not behaviors we need to instill in young people, but rather behaviors we need to recognize emerging in them.”
Originally published on March 1, 2000