Service-learning in U.S. public schools began to mature in the 1990s when several legislative initiatives were adopted to support increased student involvement in their communities. Different from community service projects, service-learning endeavors to connect students' service experiences to their school work and require the formation of partnerships among schools and other community organizations. Partnerships can entail several different levels of involvement, from simple networking, to in-depth collaboration. Educators should take care to carefully plan, implement, and evaluate partnerships to ensure their efficacy.
Keywords After-School Programs; Civic Responsibility; Community-Based Organizations; Community-School Partnership; Community Service; Service Learning; Social Responsibility; Volunteer
Service Learning: Community-School Partnerships
As early as the 1890s, Educator John Dewey advocated that students would be educated more efficiently and be faithful and active citizens of the community if they performed frequent community service that was incorporated into their school studies. Although proposed over a century ago, the concept of service learning was not a serious focus for educators until the 1990s (Skinner & Chapman, 1999). Several initiatives were adopted in the 1990's to support increased student involvement in their communities and, by the end of the century, incorporating United States students in the tasks and volunteer work of community service projects to prepare them for responsible citizenship was Goal 3 of the National Education Goals for the Year 2000 (Kleiner & Chapman, 1999).
Like community service - in which students perform tasks to benefit others in their communities - service-learning is community service in an extreme form, connecting students' service experiences to their school work. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse defines service-learning as "a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities" (Learn & Serve America, "Service," n.d., ¶ 1).
In the opening to a report by the National Commission on Service-Learning, Chairperson John Glenn referred to an ancient saying to articulate the concept of service-learning - "I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand." In addition, he suggested that service-learning can add a fourth "R" - which stands for "responsibility" - to the traditional three R's of education (National Committee on Service Learning, 2002, p. i).
According to Skinner and Chapman (1999), the 1999 National Student Service-Learning and Community Service Survey used the following descriptions and examples to distinguish between service-learning and community service for the survey participants:
Student community service projects are not based on curriculums, but are “recognized by and/or arranged through the school, may be mandatory or voluntary, generally do not include learning objectives or organized reflection, and may be conducted by school-sponsored clubs such as Girls/Boys Clubs, National Honor Society, etc. Examples of community service activities include cleaning up a local park, visiting the elderly, or collecting and distributing food to those in need” (Skinner & Chapman, 1999, p. 3).
Student service-learning is curriculum-based community service that combines school education with public and societal activities. The service is connected to a curriculum, has concise and clear learning objectives, and ventures to fix actual problems and correct real deficiencies within the community. It facilitates learning as students take part in systematized reflection or critical assessment through discussions, oral presentations, and writing assignments in the classroom. “For example, a service-learning project is one in which a middle school science class decides to help preserve the natural habitat of animals living at a local lake. Through classroom studies, the students learn about the environment, keep the area around the lake clean, post signs providing information to the public, and study soil and water composition as well as the impact of industrial development on wildlife. Throughout the project, students write about their experiences in journals and participate in class discussions about the project and its effect on their lives and the local community” (Skinner & Chapman, 1999, p. 3).
Results of this 1999 survey reported that “64% of all public schools, including 83% of public high schools, had students participating in community service activities recognized by and/or arranged through the school; 32% of all public schools organized service-learning as part of their curriculum, including nearly half of all high schools; and that most schools with service-learning programs cited strengthening relationships among students, the school, and the community as key reasons for practicing service-learning” (Skinner & Chapman, 1999, p. 10).
To support service-learning projects in communities throughout the U.S., the National and Community Service Act of 1990 established the Learn and Serve America Program to fund projects that enable students to contribute to society and build upon their academic skills while creating a sense of purpose, duty, and desire to help.
What is a Community-School Partnership?
A community-school partnership is a fundamental requirement for service-learning projects to be mutually beneficial for students who provide services and community members or organizations who receive services. It is not a simple task to create collaboration among schools and community agencies. These entities usually have their own objectives, schedules, and operating procedures that often are constrained by licensing and code requirements as well as insurance policies.
Learn and Serve America lists recommended steps for establishing school-community partnerships. It also summarizes the benefits of service-learning partnerships as the ability to:
• Accomplish work together that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish alone;
• Build a shared sense of commitment and responsibility throughout the community;
• Ensure that everyone who is touched by the service is represented in the leadership, planning and implementation;
• Avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts among agencies;
• Offer opportunities for people to learn from each other and share resources;
• Contribute to rebuilding healthy, caring communities (Learn and Serve America, "Building," ¶ 4).
Professional development for classroom teachers is also a requirement for a school's service-learning mission to be effective. Teachers for specific projects often assume the role of coordinator and need to take on responsibilities that may not be part of their usual contracted duties. The most common types of support for teachers include service-learning training or conferences outside of the school, financial support for service-learning project costs, and mini-grants for curriculum development for service-learning programs (Skinner & Chapman, 1999).
In addition to Learn and Serve America, several organizations provide information and resources for those interested in beginning or enhancing service-learning programs (Sitter, 2006).
In the last decade, the growth of service-learning has resulted from actions from congress and presidents that were able to provide more funding. “In increasing numbers, schools have provided service-learning opportunities for students that connect their curriculum studies to service activities such as tutoring younger children, adopting a river, creating a museum exhibit, or conducting oral histories with senior citizens. In these and similar instructional activities, youth have simultaneously learned to serve and served to learn, becoming both better students and better citizens” (National Committee on Service Learning, 2002, p. 4).
The 2002 report by the National Committee on Service-Learning cites several studies indicating that service-learning:
• Reverses student disengagement from schooling by increasing their motivation to participate in school activities focused on identifying actual community needs;
• Reinforces the standards-based reform movement by providing a real-life context for learning;
• Promotes the public purposes of education by preparing students for citizenship;
• Builds on the growing willingness of students to...
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