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Connecting Curriculum with Community

Service learning projects apply academic skills and knowledge to address real-life issues.
A sixth-grader in the Raymond School District #14 in Wisconsin makes a blanket for children left homeless by earthquakes in China, as part of a service learning project.

Last year, 15 students in the Montpelier (Vt.) High School's advanced placement Spanish class paid class-time visits every week to a nearby dairy farm. They interacted with the Mexican laborers by conversing with them in Spanish, having picnics together, and playing cards and soccer. as the students advanced their Spanish verbal skills, they also befriended the workers, helping to ease their feelings of loneliness.

Identifying a community problem or need and helping to solve it via student-led initiatives is at the heart of service learning. This is exactly what the 15 students did by forging bonds with the migrant workers. "It's not just that kids were handed a problem and then told to bring about a solution. It's ideal to have students take ownership, which involves deeper-level thinking," says Matthew Mclane, community-based/service learning coordinator for the Montpelier (Vt.) Public Schools. "They need to understand the issue and help create ideas for solutions." Elson Nash, associate director for program management at Learn and Serve America, a grant program of the Corporation for National and Community Service and USA Freedom Corps, calls service learning "the glue that makes things stick," noting that when students feel engaged and empowered, they learn more effectively and connect with real- world issues. Projects can tackle social issues with global impact or fill in a smaller local need using creativity and ingenuity.

Funding from Learn and Serve America makes it possible for more than 1.5 million students from kindergarten to college to devote nearly 20 million hours in service learning projects annually in 1,600 local programs across the country. Additionally, about one-quarter of the nation's elementary and secondary schools have adopted service learning programs, with 40 percent of these making service learning an integral part of their curriculum. And 55 percent of the K12 districts that were granted Learn and Serve funds (totaling $39.5 million) were located in low-income areas, according to Learn and Serve's "Budget Activity Report" on 2009 activities.

Research linking higher academic achievement with service learning projects is limited but growing. This fall, Learn and Serve plans to launch a large-scale study to track and compare student progress by testing in classrooms across the united States with and without service learning. a series of studies by Shelley Billig, vice president of RMC Research Corporation, links higher state test scores with service learning participation. Students in high-quality service learning classrooms also were found to have higher average daily attendance and less tardiness than students from comparison classrooms.

Creating Partnerships

The Montpelier project is an example of the teaching strategy that combines service activities with learning objectives. While using and improving their Spanish-speaking skills, students helped farmers forge a connection with their neighbors and combat the isolation they feel living and working in a predominantly white, rural state.

Elementary students in the Montpelier (Vt.) Public Schools visit the Montpelier Visitor Center to create a Kids Guide for tourists.

The visits were one aspect of a five-year relationship between Spanish class members and local farmers. In partnership with the Vermont Department of Agriculture (DOA) and Vermont Migrant Education Organization, students created and translated written safety documents mandated by the state legislature. The DOA, recognizing that some Mexican dairy farmers were illiterate in their native language of Spanish, sought the students' help in translating and conveying the information orally. During class time over a two-month period, students used Audacity software to create a CD featuring safety tips and training in Spanish.

The DOA distributed the CDs to 20 dairy farms that had employed Hispanic workers, according to Diane Bothfeld, Vermont's deputy secretary of agriculture. According to McLane, this information was also uploaded onto several iPods so farmers could listen to the lessons while they worked or during their free time.

Montpelier's involvement in service learning was initially funded in 2002-2008 by a KIDS (Kids Involved Doing Service) Consortium grant focusing on energy and environmental sustainability issues. That nonprofit organization provides grants for New England schools and community groups. Now, as part of the Schools of Success Network, the Montpelier district receives support and funding from State Farm Insurance Companies, Learn and Serve America, and the Education Commission of the States (ECS), according to JoAnn Henderson, executive director of the National Center for Learning and Citizenship, an ECS institute.

The ECS organization has designated 19 schools nationwide as Schools of Success, and in return, it provides support to school districts to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for all students through the exchange of advice and information. According to several experts, when service learning is intentionally used as an instructional tool to meet goals and content standards, its impact reaches far beyond "feel good" benefits, as it dovetails with the K12 focus on 21st century learning. "It's pretty clear that service learning has to have academic integrity, a direct link to the curriculum. It's not enough to just do good stuff ," says McLane.

Henderson calls service learning "nearly an ideal strategy," because it encourages multidisciplinary planning with math, science and technology teachers and strengthens students' problem-solving, team-building and communication skills. Ideally, Henderson says, teachers would look at their curricular units for a school year and determine which units lend themselves best to learning through service projects, and then pick those.

Made in the U.S.A.

Depending on a district's preference, the duration of service learning projects can range from a few weeks to a full semester or longer. At Raymond School District #14 in Franksville, Wis., approximately 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in 2010 made no-sew blankets (fleece fabric with two layers held together with knots) and sent them overseas to Chinese students left homeless by a series of earthquakes. The yearlong initiative involved social studies, math, science and reading lessons about China and natural disasters in general, according to Z. George Slupski, the district administrator for the Raymond district.

To raise money to purchase fabric, students ran a two-day rummage sale, organizing and pricing items donated from the community and creating posters and other publicity materials. They also wrote letters to potential community partners, ultimately receiving a discount from JoAnn Fabrics, a local retailer, and free delivery from DHL to ship the finished products.

Students in the Fowler (Calif.) Unified School District collect pajamas and toiletries for the local child abandonment center.

Slupski says incorporating service learning came naturally to the K8 school district, which has just one building and traditionally has enjoyed close community ties. "It's made a difference in our school culture by giving students a voice and leadership. The school is a better place to learn and get along," he says.

Another Raymond project, a bike safety campaign, was sparked when a 48-year-old bike rider was struck and killed by an alleged drunk motorist two years ago near the school. Seventh- and eighth-graders created a float for the 2009 Independence Day parade and organized a schoolwide bike safety fair that featured sessions on safety, maintenance, road rules, the history of bicycles and competitive biking. Students wrote and took a bicycle safety pledge, vowing to wear helmets and follow the rules of the road. Watching the students work at the helm of such projects is "amazing," Slupski says. "They grow into leaders before your eyes," he adds.

Also designated as a Schools of Success recipient, the Raymond School District had received additional support from the PTO, the Nancy Sellars Memorial Foundation, Wheel & Sprocket, Milwaukee School of Engineering and the Wisconsin Bike Federation.

Having an Academic Impact

The Fowler (Calif.) Unified School District initiated service learning 10 years ago but began a character education emphasis in the 1990s. Sutter Middle School Principal Lori Gonzalez thinks service learning is the most positive experience she's witnessed in education. "It's a great way of getting kids involved in something they can become passionate about," she says.

The district has received numerous honors, and over five years it has improved 10 percent on the state's Academic Performance Index. Moreover, it has a 97 percent attendance rate and a dropout rate of less than 1 percent. FUSD is also a designated School of Success.

This past school year, 30 sixth-graders at Sutter Middle School learned about farmers and labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who is a historical icon in the Latino community and co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers union. They also learned about the danger of UVA rays and wrote letters requesting donations from local businesses.

The students, whom Gonzalez dubs "the Chavez Caring Crew," created 20 goody bags filled with sun protection items like lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses and more, along with informational pamphlets in Spanish and English warning nearby vineyard farmers about the dangers of sun damage. They created the bags during class and after school, and a teacher distributed them to a nearby vineyard.

Where service learning is the norm in school districts, the end result is usually student empowerment. "We live in a democracy and need to draw on the skills and talents of everyone," McLane says. "Young people can provide meaningful contributions to the community," he adds. "An added bonus is that they can simultaneously master curriculum and develop real-world skills that will prepare them for their future."