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K12 districts bring life to learning

Connecting instruction to community service provides deeper level of student commitment
  • POLLUTION PROBE—Science students at Pizitz Middle School near Birmingham, Alabama, test water quality as part of a year-long campaign to raise more than $8,000 to build a well in Uganda. Many classes at the school studied aspects of the community service project.
  • COMPUTER CONTRIBUTION—At Pizitz Middle School, coding students created video games that they charged classmates to play to raise money for a well in Uganda.
  • COMPUTER CONTRIBUTION—At Pizitz Middle School, science classes studied water pollution.

Pizitz Middle School, located in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, committed to raise enough money to build a well in Uganda.

Working with a local nonprofit, school leaders kicked off the project during the first week of school in 2017 and spent the year connecting classroom instruction to this service goal.

“We needed to raise $8,000 to build a well, and we knew that when a well is built, a new school almost always follows because of the complete change in the level of prosperity for the area,” says Meredith Hanson, principal at Pizitz, which is part of Vestavia Hills City Schools.

“Throughout the year, every class got involved in a unique way that used their learning objectives to contribute to the project.”


SIDEBAR: Soft skills in service


For instance, the coding class created video games and charged other students $1 to play, with all the proceeds going toward the well. Science classes learned about pollution and how unclean water affects communities.

History classes studied the historical events in Uganda that led to the water crisis, and English classes read novels that touched on African themes.

Even PE classes got involved, with teachers asking students to try carrying 40-pound plastic water jugs on their heads, like many African women must do to bring clean water to their homes.

“It was nearly impossible for even the most athletic students to carry those cans of water on their heads,” Hanson says.

“That was one of the moments when students really understood the problem we were helping to solve.”

By the end of the school year, Pizitz Middle School had surpassed its goal and provided a new well for a Ugandan community—and a lifetime of lessons for students.

Teachers saw their academic standards “come to life with the real things that go on in the world,” Hanson says.

These types of community projects and service learning initiatives allow students to use their classroom skills to benefit the world around them. In turn, the skills and lessons learned can boost academic achievement.

Bringing classroom learning to life with community service can look different for each grade level. Here’s how some districts are making it happen.

‘Why do we need to know this?’

At Needham Public Schools in the Boston suburbs, each of the district’s eight schools has a community service learning representative who develops and organizes projects, says Mark Healey, science curriculum coordinator.

How projects are connected to the curriculum depends on the classroom teacher. Healey has seen elementary students graphing the results of a food drive; seventh-graders writing a children’s book about ecology and reading it to second-graders; and 11th-graders studying the feasibility of converting an abandoned railbed into a recreational path.

“We aim to address the student question, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ through relevant, applied, solutions-oriented service work,” he says.

Needham’s K2 service learning projects are selected by students but require more help from teachers and parents to succeed.

In grades 3 through 5, students take a more active role. They share information about the project during morning announcements and school meetings.

They also make posters to advertise the project, coordinate activities with representatives of the organizations that are being supported, and learn more about those groups in language arts classes.

Afterward, they reflect on service learning by writing about or drawing pictures of the experience.

This gives students real-world practice in oral and written communication as well as in designing solutions to problems, Healy says.

At Vestavia Hills Elementary West in suburban Birmingham, teachers use natural events as they occur to incorporate service projects into the curriculum, Principal Kim Hauser says.

Last September, some classes raised money for the American Red Cross to assist flood victims after Hurricane Harvey.

They donated $3,000 in pay they had received for doing chores at home.

Students also connected the disaster to their curriculum. In studying the science of weather, they learned about erosion and why flooding occurs.

“Teachers helped students use geography skills to locate Texas and the flood zone on the map,” Hauser says. “They’ve done the same for Haiti and other crises in the past.”

Service learning also teaches students soft skills, such as altruism, through acts of charity, for instance.

“They experience the intrinsic happiness of doing good by others, and learn appreciation for what they have and empathy for others,” Hauser says.

Designing a scavenger hunt

During the middle school years, “our goal is that students begin to learn about the community around them at a deeper level and how they can have a positive impact,” says Needham’s Healey.

“We encourage students to organize their own service projects and to understand how they are helping the community.”

Needham sixth-graders participate in activities that introduce them to community outreach programs and key issues within their town.

Seventh- and eighth-graders begin developing their own projects.

“They may apply content from their classroom experiences, but several of the key goals are framed around their ability to understand multiple perspectives within a community, to identify a need that they can help address, and to collaborate with others in their community,” Healey says.

Sixth-graders at Fremont Middle School, in the Fremont School District near Chicago, volunteered at the local community garden, and noticed it needed signs to identify plants and to provide facts for visitors.

As part of the year-long project, students combined math and literacy skills through design thinking to create new spaces, to build signs and to construct and plant new beds. They even set up a scavenger hunt for visitors.

Discovering new interests

At California’s Malibu High School, students have long been required to complete community service hours outside the classroom. But in recent years, the school has more intentionally built community service learning opportunities into the curriculum.

“It allows students to gain a deeper understanding of key concepts, while developing their skills as active and thoughtful citizens,” says Beth Soloway, Malibu High School’s community service learning coordinator.

In the high school’s required freshman seminar class, every ninth-grader writes a research paper about a current social issue, which counts for 10 service learning hours. In 10th grade English, every student completes an advocacy project based on their freshman year research.

Each student also volunteers at an organization, organizes a fundraiser or completes some other community service project. Then they document and share their experience with the current freshman seminar class. This activity counts for another 10 hours of community service. Students must fulfill the remaining 60 hours outside of class.

“Research and writing skills are honed on topics that they choose and that are meaningful to them,” Soloway says. “Many students have discovered new passions and interests, and have developed newfound skills as a result of our program.”


Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.