Student Engagement

A Formula for Creating Successful Student-Run Service Learning Projects

A Tampa assistant principal and her student started a movement in their community.

May 19, 2011

Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Rosemary Owens, assistant principal for curriculum at Freedom High School and Tampa FL.


Tampa's Freedom High School was transformed by a student-led initiative beginning in the summer of 2009. A rising senior, Blake O'Connor, and I had the privilege of attending the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF) on a scholarship from the Bezos Family Foundation. The AIF is an annual gathering of big thinkers from all areas of society, from the arts to science to religion, culture, economics, and politics. Each year, the festival challenges participants to tackle some of the more pressing issues of our times, and figure out ways to replicate solutions.  

Our Inspiration

The year we went the festival theme was "Exploring Ideas, Deepening Dialogue, Inspiring Action," and the scholars had lots of freedom in choosing speakers to hear and sessions to attend. Education, naturally, was important to our fellow student and educator  scholars. It was fascinating to listen to Michelle Rhee discuss her experience with D.C schools. Howard Gardner provided much insight on learning styles and Tom Friedman was a driving force in declaring the responsibility of youth to be agents of change in our world: "Get off Facebook and into peoples' faces!" A highlight was spending a scholars-only hour with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. New to his position, he requested the time to listen to us - educators and students - tell him about our classroom experience and hopes for its future.

As part of our grant, we were challenged to return home and create a festival for our own community, a Local Ideas Festival.  

Turning Inspiration into Action

Inspired by the profound needs to improve literacy in our community and around the world, Blake and his peers created Café Freedom, named after the salons of the French Revolution. As a team, they worked to change local statistics: 35% of children in third grade were not ready to read when they arrived.   

This is an important year in Florida public schools, as third-grade students begin to take standardized tests that determine their placement in their own educational progression.   

Meeting with peers, faculty and administration at the beginning of the new school year, Café Freedom got to work. A plan was formed and implemented to promote literacy awareness through numerous stages.

  • Book donations: Freedom High students encouraged others to donate books to take to 12 second grade classrooms in Title 1 elementary schools. They asked for help gathering donated books from the entire school's educational community, including the PTSA, Liberty Middle School, parents, teachers and early childhood programs at nearby universities.
  • Readings at elementary schools: High school students read books to the second graders, created "I Feel the Need to Read" activities and made sure they all received books that could be given away to each student.
  • Parent Night: The targeted elementary school parents were invited for a discussion on how to raise readers and an exploration of techniques to make it happen. A panel of experts from local media, education university faculty and librarians were asked to share their advice, while separately their children were entertained by Freedom High School's Drama Club productions of children's stories.
  • Day-long "I Feel the Need to Read" celebration The major push of the initiative was the Literacy Festival on Dr. Seuss' birthday in which 280 second graders filled the Freedom High School football field for a day of literacy-themed games, activities, food and prizes. Not only was each student encouraged to read throughout the day, but each also took a literacy oath and received a bag of books and school supplies to take with them.

Bringing the Literacy Project to Other Schools

Because of the overwhelming success of Blake's project, Café Freedom expanded their effort this year. Two additional high schools were supported to start their own literacy initiatives, reaching a thousand more elementary school students. In its second year, over 1000 students benefited from books raised by this expanded group. The second annual Family Literacy night drew close to 400 parents and students. Sponsorship of this program has expanded from the original Bezos grant to include local support from Target, Publix and the Rotary Club of New Tampa.

"I Feel the Need to Read" Celebrates Joy of Reading with Hundreds of Second Graders at the 2010 literacy festival at Tampa's Freedom High School.

Students Use the Same Formula for a Second Initiative: Drowning Prevention

The club has expanded to also include a second community service initiative, drowning prevention. Elisa Berson, a founding club member, almost drowned as a toddler, but overcame her fear to become a competitive swimmer, even qualifying for the Junior Olympics. She combined her passion for swimming with the knowledge that drowning is a leading cause of death in children in Florida, and led Café Freedom in its second major festival this year: "April Pool's Day." The successful event used the same formula as the literacy festival.

Formula for Implementing a Successful Service Learning Project

Through trial and error, I have found the following steps very helpful to offer students the opportunity to experience service learning first hand:

  • Find a small group of students known to be committed to service. Following the rules dictated by your school and initiate a service club. Challenge the nucleus group of students to invite others to increase membership.
  • Allow the charter group to take the lead. Let these students brainstorm and research the issues within the community, and to decide on a project that would, if addressed, make a positive difference within the community.
  • Get buy-in from administration. Once the students have selected a project, start with the principal to garner school-wide support.
  • Communicate with the faculty and staff. Make them aware of the needs and design of the project; see if they want to be a part of it and tell them how they can help ensure students' success. Include the PTSA, by scheduling time for students to speak at meetings.
  • Inform parents. Use flyers at Open House and Conference Night events to inform parents of your event, and what they can do to help make it a success.
  • Tap the influence of school board members. Arranging meetings for the students to alert members about the service they will provide for the community. Elicit their support.
  • Formulate a timeline of events. Be sure to circulate it among your team and coordinate with all potential participants early in the process.
  • Inform local media. Make media organizations aware of all events, and their purpose. Be sure to designate a point person, and provide contact information.
  • Be a champion for this student group. Take every opportunity to talk up what they are doing.
  • Document every step. Keep all information organized in a binder to be used for future projects. This binder will be a beautiful representation of what has been done to present, and will help ensure future sustainability and growth.
  • Network through professional organizations. If growth of your program outside of your own school is an aspiration you'll want to do this to to spread the word about the potential for your students' growth and the positive impact on the community that has been realized as a result of the project. Encourage other schools to pick a cause!
  • Be a resource for all who buy in. As more people get involved, you'll have more to share.

Anyone else have any tips to add to this list? Please share them here!

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  • Student Engagement
  • Education Equity
  • Literacy
  • Service Learning
  • English Language Arts

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