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Building Bridges through Service Learning

There are many advantages of a service-learning requirement.
A Waterford High School civics class built six homes in New London, Conn. with the organization Habitat for Humanity.

Our public school system was founded for the purpose of ensuring that we have an educated citizenry and instilling in our young people the values of democracy. As a result, woven in among the reading, writing and arithmetic have been the lessons of democracy. As educators, we encourage students never to accept inequity, and we teach them that history lessons speak to the price of freedom, the importance of courage, and the necessity of compassion and forgiveness.

We at the Waterford (Conn.) School District, where I served as superintendent for 19 years, realized that an effective strategy for teaching these lessons and for instilling in our students a love of country and a desire to help their fellow travelers was by doing. In 1992, through its Learning through Service program, the Waterford district became one of the first public school systems to institute an 80-hour service-learning requirement for graduation. It was a controversial decision. At the time, the board was concerned about tying the community service requirement to the curriculum and providing students with a meaningful opportunity to reflect upon their experience.

The Benefits—and Arguments

There are many benefits to a service learning requirement: It provides an avenue for young people to explore careers and to gain work skills; it involves those who, for whatever reason, are reluctant to volunteer; it adds value to college applications; and, most importantly, it addresses a community need. Emily Colby, 2010 valedictorian at Stonington High School, said in a speech that service learning projects "allow students to gain a broad perspective of society, while the community itself is improved by the services of the students."

However, legitimate arguments can be offered against the concept of mandating service learning. There are the liability considerations. Others say that caring cannot be mandated, that there are logistical concerns such as record keeping and transportation, or that mandated service undermines the volunteerism already performed.

However, the most intriguing argument is that mandatory community service is involuntary servitude and therefore a violation of the 13th Amendment, or that it violates the First Amendment right to freedom of religion because schools are trying to impose a certain set of values.

Schools establish many requirements for graduation, and requiring mandatory service learning, in my opinion, is no different. Courts have found that it does not violate the Constitution. If you are thinking about requiring service learning in your district, I have a couple of lessons learned from the Waterford experience.

Waterford's Example

The Waterford district does not limit a student's definition of service-learning opportunities. The only requirements are that service is free and must be provided to a nonprofit organization. So political campaigns, all types of religious groups, and organizations with controversial agendas are acceptable. A Learning through Service coordinator guides the process and ensures that no student falls through the cracks. An executive committee of students ensures not only that the Learning through Service program meets community needs but that it also develops student leadership. The committee is responsible for policy decisions regarding the program and also hears appeals from those students who have been denied hours. Lastly, some limited hours are provided for service to the community through school activities such as plays, sports and concerts.

Over the years this program has become an integral part of the culture in the school and the community. About 1,000 students providing at least 80 hours of service have built incredible and, in some cases, unlikely bridges. A group of teenagers successfully petitioning the U.S. government to reopen the search for a pilot from our high school shot down in the Vietnam War, students and teachers building homes for needy families, and seniors in high school inviting senior citizens to a prom are just a few of the thousands of gestures of service and kindness that have occurred.

An appreciation for the good that young people do and a sense of optimism for the future are the by-products of this worthy program.

Randall Collins served as superintendent of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools for 19 years and was president of the American Association of School Administrators from 2008 to 2009. Send your questions regarding leadership situations to askRandy.