Community Service Education
This article focuses on the rise of community service education in K-12 public schools and the effect these programs can have on students both while still in school and throughout the rest of their lives. More commonly known as service learning, community service education provides experiential learning by pairing classroom concepts with real-world community needs, and helps students develop critical thinking skills and learn to function as part of a group. Successful program examples are also noted.
Keywords Civic Responsibility; Community Engagement; Community Service; Experiential Learning; National & Community Service Act of 1990; Reflection; Service Learning; Volunteerism
Service Learning: Community Service Education
Community service education has become an important component of many K-12 programs. More commonly known as service learning, community service education provides experiential learning by attempting to pair classroom concepts with real-world community needs to help students answer the question, "Why do I have to learn this?" while helping to foster a commitment to community service and concern for the community and its citizens that will last a lifetime. Community service education helps students develop critical thinking skills and learn to function as part of a group. For older students, community service education can also help define career goals and direct their collegiate studies by exposing them to professions they may not know exist and learning about the skills required of the profession. There are many opportunities for schools throughout the nation to adopt community service education programs. Projects can be short term or long term; but to be considered a true service-learning program, it must include the element of student reflection. Schools, communities, and teachers may also benefit from community service education programs. Schools can develop better relationships with the communities they serve, communities can have a genuine need addressed and problems solved, and teachers can become rejuvenated by seeing renewed student interest and additional skills acquired.
The National and Community Service Act of 1990, as amended through December 17, 1999, cements service learning as a process by which learners can increase their knowledge base and skill set by participating actively in community service projects. The service learning project is mixed into the academic curriculum or the educational elements of the program, and the experience must address actual needs in the community and help foster civic responsibility. For it to be considered true service learning, it must also supply structured reflection time for students to reflect, discuss, and observe the results of their service experience and how they felt while performing the services.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics conducted a "National Student Service-Learning and Community Service Survey." It discovered that “64 percent of all public schools, including 83 percent of public high schools, had students participating in community service activities that were recognized or arranged through their schools; 57 percent of all public schools organized community service activities for their students; and 32 percent of all public schools organized service learning as part of their curriculum. The percentage of students participating in service learning was as follows: 25 percent of elementary schools, 38 percent of middle schools, and 46 percent of all high schools” (“Service-learning,” 2007, p. 4). The most frequently cited reasons schools included service learning in their curriculum were to aid students in becoming active participants in the community, help them learn more about their surroundings and the inner workings of a community, build a strong relationship between the town and the school system, and inspire caring and helpful student motivation (U.S. Department of Education).
All community service education projects are a group effort. Students learn to use critical thinking skills, function as part of a group, and make the connection between what they are learning in the classroom and how it applies to real-life situations. This can result in more interest in classroom work and better, more active classroom participation. Critical thinking skills are used in analyzing data and reports to determine which project the group elects to undertake, coming up with solutions to solve the problem, making decisions throughout the project, as well as during the reflection process at the end of the project. Students learn to function as part of a group throughout the entire project by deciding which project to do, determining how the project will be done, and deciding which students do which aspects of the project. It is important that instructors are explicit in explaining to students that homework assignments and classroom projects apply to real-life situations. By emphasizing the connection, students are able to better understand that classroom teaching relates directly to everyday life, which can increase their interest in learning.
Community service education can help shape students' character by promoting responsibility because students must commit to a project, show up for the project, and see the project through to its conclusion. It can also help students learn to care about people other than themselves and their immediate families. By working on a project to help others in need, community service education helps develop a sense of civic responsibility and the need to give back to the community in order to make it a better place to live for everyone.
For many students, community service education provides a different setting in which they might be more successful than they have been in the usual classroom setting. Students who sometimes struggle with mathematics may flourish while working on measuring, cutting, and determining how much wood is necessary to make access ramps for wheelchair accessibility. Abstract concepts begin to have concrete meanings when they are used to solve real life problems. An effective community service education program reinforces what is taught in the classroom, such as mathematics skills, presentation skills, English skills, and woodworking skills. For example, a teacher may want to have students work on a garden in conjunction with a soup kitchen or food bank. Students can see their science lessons come to life by planting, growing, and tending the fruits and vegetables. If they decided to try to sell at a farmer's market and donate the proceeds, they could put their economics and mathematics lessons to use and also work on their presentation skills. If they wanted to sell the fruits and vegetables from the school grounds, they could use their computer and English classroom skills to produce fliers and posters to promote the sale and garner community interest and support (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2002).
Community engagement is an important factor in community service education. Community service education can help strengthen the ties between students and the communities in which they live, providing them with a better sense of belonging and a feeling of responsibility toward their communities. In working on a necessary, meaningful project through to its successful conclusion, students see that they can make a difference in society and that their involvement helped make their community a better place to live. Such success helps foster volunteerism and an ongoing commitment to contribute to the community that can last throughout their lives.
Through community service education, students can come into contact with people who work in professions that they may otherwise never know or hear about. Students can meet government administrators, civil servants, college professors, social workers, scientists, health care workers, and others who work throughout the community. By working with these professionals and seeing what skills and competencies are necessary for them to carry out their duties, students can acquire a realistic view of what duties various occupations entail and how...
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