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Service Learning in Action

Could your district use a program that can increase student's interest and their grades, while at t

At the official unveiling the kids had snacks and apple juice to celebrate. Toasts were proposed. One student suggested a toast to the artist. Another proposed thanking the school volunteers. Then one boy raised his glass, "To Cesar Chavez!"

His classmates echoed the enthusiastic toast, and then the sparkling apple juice is sipped. No one here thinks it strange that a dead workers' rights leader would be the subject of a fourth grader's toast. After all, the class had just completed a huge mural depicting the struggle for the rights of migrant workers in California. That the students feel a kinship with their subject is both completely natural and wonderful.

The depth and breadth of a project like this epitomizes the concept of service learning, a way of integrating community involvement into schoolwork. Service learning seems to be one aspect of education that is currently enjoying a groundswell of support from enthusiastic teachers, administrators and politicians.

But what is service learning? According to a new report from the National Commission on Service Learning, Learning In Deed: The Power of Service-Learning for American Schools, it is "a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities." The challenge inherent in that definition is to create powerful and meaningful programs that connect students to their shared environment. Service learning proponents repeatedly point out that a good service learning program is not an "add-on" to the academic day, and that, like any program, it is only effective when done well.

Eye Opener

With the current trend of accountability and standards, service learning can offer students some benefits that are sure to open administrators' eyes. According to the commission's report, students who attend schools that have a strong service learning component get higher grades, complete more of their homework, and score better on standardized tests. Need other benefits? Try increased attendance and reduced drop-out rates in districts that feature service learning. Indeed, service learning seems almost too good to be true. If it is so simple and so effective, why hasn't it been done before now?

Service learning done right helps meet the basic goals of education, both of  academics and citizenship.

The answer is, it has. Terms like "project-based learning," "hands-on learning" and "applied learning" have been around for decades. The reasons why service learning is in the forefront of the national consciousness right now have a lot to do with both coincidence and the changed national sentiment since September 11th.

The Kellogg Foundation began to push service learning 10 years ago; four years ago, it launched a second and larger push called Learning In Deed, which brought in the John Glenn Institute and set up a national commission to broaden the use of service learning and report on how to accomplish this. The National Commission on Service Learning report murwas released in February. Independent of the commission's work, the country has experienced a surge in its appreciation of community service. Organizations like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps are enjoying public popularity, while the values of community, peace and cross-cultural understanding are being nurtured and applauded. All of this is coincidental to the release of the commission's report, but all of these threads are coming together to weave a strong argument in support of service learning.

Ron Machado is a working example of what can be done with a little money, enthusiastic leadership and a blank wall. With funding from Linking SF, the service learning arm of the San Francisco Unified School District, and help from the SF School Volunteers, Machado's fourth grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School began a semester-long project that would culminate in the unveiling of their mural. The kids first had to engage in research into community history to decide what would be appropriate to put on the wall of this school in a largely Hispanic neighborhood. They met with an experienced mural artist, Josef Norris, who walked them through discussions about their community. The children engaged in "reflection" at the end of each day's participation in the project, drawing or writing about what they had thought about during the day, synthesizing their thoughts and putting them onto paper. Norris then took the drawings from weeks and months of reflection and arranged them into a mural that the kids then edited, printed out and transferred onto the huge wall of the upper playground. In the process, the students had to exercise their academic wits and their interpersonal skills, drawing on lessons from social studies, writing and art as well as their abilities to work together, accept challenges and actively participate.

Using some of the grant from Linking SF, Machado bought a video camera for the students to document the project. Kids interviewed fellow students and community members on their reactions to and opinions about the mural, about art in general, and how they feel about graffiti. They restored a smaller existing mural to prepare for the task of creating one from scratch. Both the restored mural and the new one have remained untouched by graffiti, a testament to how the students and the community feel pride and ownership in the school. The project has been so successful that Machado's students have been asked to conduct a workshop demonstrating their project and teaching teachers at other schools how to duplicate their success.

"Years from now, you will come back to this school, look at this mural and be able to say, 'I did that,' " mural artist Josef Norris told the students.

The mural project wouldn't have happened without funding from Linking SF. Linking SF began 10 years ago as a federal and state funded program, one of the first service learning programs in the country. It sponsors a Teacher Leadership Team, 30 teachers from 16 public schools, who learn the fundamentals of service learning and then disseminate to other teachers what they have learned. In this way, teachers train teachers.

Spreading the Service Learning Word

Service learning is sometimes confused with the concept of community service, since it does, in effect, serve the community, says Liz Brahmberg, professional development coordinator and teacher on special assignment to Linking SF. However, what service learning does is connects the classroom curriculum to a community need and then uses the input to create an action project that addresses that need. Service learning, says Brahmberg, has become a way to say "civic responsibility," which is something that is sometimes seen as lacking in public education. Service learning is a way to instill community values into students by engaging them in the community rather than by simply lecturing to them.

"Being connected to your community is the survival mechanism of the 21st century." -Christine Kwak, philanthropy and volunteerism program director, Kellogg Foundation

As well as training teachers, Linking SF is creating curriculum for teachers to use either as example programs they can develop or even as ready-off-the-shelf programs. Teachers are asked to document their projects so other teachers can benefit by their example. Outreach, especially to district high schools, is a priority. Linking SF is also facing the challenge of developing its own funding, but the hope is that the success of programs like the one just completed by Ron Machado's kids will bring interest and funding to service learning.

"Being connected to your community is the survival mechanism of the 21st century," says Christine Kwak, the philanthropy and volunteerism program director at the Kellogg Foundation.

Service learning is garnering local and national buzz, and the folks at the Kellogg Foundation couldn't be more pleased. While she admits that more research needs to be done, Kwak is excited by the attention that the newly released report is bringing to the concept of service learning. Kwak emphasizes the big picture, insisting that raising citizens should be the goal of education. Service learning engages students, and where there's engagement, test scores follow. Success translates to academic success. Projects like Machado's change the way children see themselves as well as the way their community sees them; they become empowered, and for Kwak, the increase in self-identity and selfesteem is one of the most powerful benefits of service learning.

"If you want to build the habit and ethic of giving of oneself for society, you have to start young. ... You can't expect a person at the age of 18 to suddenly decide to give, to become involved," says Kwak. In order to raise global citizens with skills to make a difference in the world around them, you have to provide a meaningful series of examples demonstrating why they should be involved, why they should care, and how they can benefit themselves and their community in the process. Service learning done right helps meet the basic goals of education, both of academics and citizenship.

Gone Fishing

Another of the beauties of the service learning model is its scalability. Community issues are not the exclusive property of large urban schools. Smaller schools can use the idea of involving students in community action in ways that fit their specific needs. In the town of Lubec, Maine, the need wasn't for community outreach or community understanding, but for community retention: kids in Lubec tend to leave for bigger pastures because there isn't a place for them to step into upon graduation. The service learning program at Lubec Consolidated School needed to focus on providing practical experience for its students while still offering solid academics and a forwardthinking outlook.

Enter Aquaculture. With a grant from the Annenberg Foundation and matching money from the town of Lubec, the high school age students designed and implemented a fish production business. The first year, says Brian Leavitt, the aquaculture instructor for the 250 kids at the K- 12 school, they tried raising salmon. All the fish died. It was the kind of moment that could have been the end of the road, but instead it became another opportunity for problem-solving. The kids had to address the issue of dead fish, why the fish died, what they could do to recover their losses, and how they could re-start their fish business and succeed. To do this they had to exercise all those good school science muscles: analyze the problem, form hypotheses, test the results, reconfigure the experiment and start over.

"The kids love it," says Leavitt. The kids love the fact that the "lab" takes them out of the traditional classroom structure and into another world. Leavitt runs programs for every age group at the school from kindergarten through high school; activities are aimed at reinforcing and expanding upon the academics the kids are doing in their classes. And the work is continually being reflected back into the community. For instance, the phytoplankton monitoring that the middle school age students perform is compiled into data that is then sent to the state Department of Marine Resources. The kids could conceivably find and report on dangerous levels of microorganisms that would effect their own fishing community and the lives of people up and down the coast. The kids have the feeling that what they're doing makes a difference, and the hope is that this kind of ownership translates into community retention.

As for all those dead fish, it turns out the water was too warm for salmon, so rather than invest in a refrigeration unit, the students began again with a warm water fish. The goal is to make the business a going concern; so far, they've had a successful hatching and the numbers look good. In the long run, the goal is for the students to feel connected to their town, to the ocean, and to the world of living things. They can then bring their newfound skills into the fishing community and enhance the quality of life in Lubec. No community could ask for more.

Empowering Students

These programs range from alternative high schoolers in Wisconsin to Massachusetts kindergartners

You don't have to look very hard for examples of successful service learning projects across the country. Once an organization or school gets results with this model, programs blossom and spread. The benefits of service learning can be spotted in the ways students see themselves and in the ways teachers see their students, says Dennis Donovan, National Organizer for Public Achievement, a youth civic education initiative. Students learn how to be powerful-they see that they can effect change. Their teachers begin to see them as problem-solvers instead of as problems. And both teachers and students are empowered by doing big projects with visible results in the community instead of waiting around for someone else-the government, the school board, the parents-to come along and fix things.

Kindergartners Care

The kindergartners at Sullivan Elementary School, North Adams, Mass., prove that you are never too young to participate in service learning. In a well-documented project, the kids recognized a community need for a more child-friendly waiting area in North Adams Regional Hospital. Working with the hospital, the class determined which toys to purchase, decided what kind of art should go on the walls, and created picture books dealing with common fears about hospitals and how to alleviate them. The children expressed excitement throughout the project, and the response from patients and staff at the hospital has been overwhelmingly positive. The school is continuing to work with the hospital to create other child-friendly waiting areas and examining rooms.

Migrant Outreach and Support

Service-learning is also big at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.; two-thirds of their teachers engage in at least one service project every year. The school sponsors several recurring programs under the umbrella of "Viking Serve," one of which is Arriba Corazones, an outreach and support program for the migrant worker population in and around Columbia. Students gather information on the needs of this community, create goals and form action plans that they then implement. The students use their Spanish and English speaking and writing skills to keep journals and assessments of their goals and achievements. Each project culminates in a festive gathering organized by the students for the families who benefit from the food, clothing, and other goods provided by the service project.

High School Community Rules

No one at Shabazz is waiting for outside assistance. As their Web site says, "Service Learning is big at Shabazz High School." This Madison, Wis., alternative high school and National Demonstration School for Service Learning has completed numerous service learning projects. English students study childrens' books and then create personalized books for the first graders at a local elementary school. Students get involved in local issues and work with advocacy groups to study the democratic process. Community gardens for homeless shelters, youth advocacy for a revitalized downtown, organized computer donations-the list of projects that exercise academics and reflect back into the community goes on and on. Participation is enthusiastic and visible. A sampling of some students' feelings, as posted on their Web site, sum up this school's commitment to service learning.

Students surveyed at the school indicated overwhelmingly that service learning methods "increase their motivation," "help them remember what they have learned," "teach them analytical and reflection skills," "let them apply the information and skills which they are learning in class," and "give them the opportunity to be creative and put their ideas to work."

Elizabeth Crane, ecrane@mail., is a contributing editor and writer based in San Francisco, Calif.