George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning

Learning by Giving: Community Service as Classwork

Schools add the Golden Rule to the curriculum.
February 1, 2006

To graduate from high school in Maryland, students must do more than memorize the parts of the nervous system and master quadratic equations. They have to fulfill seventy-five hours of community service -- and babysitting doesn't count.

As school-based volunteering soars nationwide, educators are fine-tuning their service initiatives to create serious community-based projects and tie them to academic standards. Hundreds of school districts require elementary, middle, and high schools to build community service into the curriculum. Although Maryland is the only state that mandates service, a growing number, including California, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, actively encourage it.

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An estimated 10.6 million students volunteered through their schools in 2004, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service -- up from 6.1 million in 1997 and just less than 1 million in 1984. Chicago, with 105,000 students in 107 high schools, is the largest district with a strict quantifiable requirement: forty hours of service learning (real-world activities with clear curricular tie-ins and teacher oversight) to graduate, at least half of which must be completed by the end of tenth grade. Los Angeles mandated service learning beginning with the class of 2007. Philadelphia has a solid reputation for service in schools, but the district dictates only that third, eighth, and twelfth graders complete a multidisciplinary project that may be service related.

Projects nationwide run the gamut from traditional charity endeavors, such as Hats for the Homeless, to environmental cleanups to human rights activities, such as campaigns against genocide abroad or gun violence at home. Maryland students raised money to preserve cannons at the Civil War battle site of Antietam and restore a room at a historic plantation. They have built Adirondack chairs at a nature center and nesting boxes for wood ducks; they have planted gardens along banks in wetlands. Teenagers elsewhere danced with senior citizens, served breakfast to veterans, and mentored younger kids.

Still, mandated enforcement of the Golden Rule has hitches. Students often resist and resent a do-good requirement, even if they enjoy the work once they try it. Wyatt Harrison, a senior at Stephen Decatur High School, in Berlin, Maryland, remembers his response, as a freshman, to the prospect of forced volunteering: He dreaded it. "I just wanted to get these hours out of the way," he says.

This is not what educators across the country had in mind when they began adding service requirements to the public school curriculum in the 1990s. They believed that making students collect coats for homeless people or lug trash from beaches would teach civic responsibility and sensitize young people to the desperate need around them for volunteerism. But one decade into the service movement, even supporters have learned how difficult it is for schools to build large-scale charitable enterprises that educate students.

In his book My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message, sociologist Amitai Etzioni described his visits to schools that require community service this way: "In most instances, after a short initial burst of enthusiasm and commitment, the program soon deteriorated" into busywork. Students, Etzioni wrote, often scrambled to fill their obligation or earned credit for activities they did anyway, including singing in a church choir or babysitting for a busy member of Congress.

"A lot of it ended up being kids helping teachers clean up their rooms or shoveling snow," acknowledges Jon Schmidt, service-learning manager for the Chicago Public Schools.

Not Just Busywork

Educators responded by designing projects that would enhance learning and inspire students to help out over the long haul. School systems with the longest track records, such as those in Maryland and Chicago, revamped their guidelines to ensure that projects are tied to academic objectives in the classroom and documented problems in the community. "It's not just bringing in cans of food," says Julie Ayers, service-learning specialist for Maryland's Department of Education.

Cindy Lloyd's students at Somerset Intermediate School, in Westover, Maryland, did just that -- a grocery drive called Harvest for the Hungry -- but that was only the beginning. In science, they studied the effects of malnutrition on the body. In social studies, they learned about the economics and politics of food distribution. They read novels and poetry about poverty, they wrote newspaper articles about their campaign, and they toured a food bank.

Instead of focusing on volunteer hours, many schools favor class projects such as Lloyd's. Cheryl Doughty's family and consumer sciences students at James M. Bennett High School, in Salisbury, Maryland, studied textile production and the Baldridge principles of manufacturing quality while they designed and sewed a hundred fleece hats for the homeless. Virginia Fair's ecology classes at North Carroll High School, in Hampstead, Maryland, researched the blight killing off the American chestnut tree while they planted seedlings bred to withstand infection.

At Decatur, where Wyatt Harrison was not the only freshman to view the service requirement as a chore, students made the experience meaningful by establishing Connections, a student-run center that links volunteers with groups seeking help. Conceived by two students, Connections quickly grew to involve twenty teenagers and now has a corps of eighty staffing the office, writing grant proposals, coordinating volunteer opportunities, and organizing ambitious school-based service projects "I see a lot of kids, even younger kids, stepping up," Harrison says.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act and the exhaustive testing it requires, is finding the time to fit service and charity into the school day. "We're really squished into a box," says Kathleen Lee, a teacher and service-learning champion at John P. Turner Middle School, in Philadelphia. "It's extremely disconcerting."

Nonetheless, educators are striving mightily to produce data that justifies service learning. Studies show that high-quality programs -- those lasting a minimum of one semester and incorporating student choice, strong ties to grade-level standards, direct contact with the people being served, and cognitively challenging reflection activities -- can improve academic performance and attendance, says Shelley Billig, a leading investigator in the field and vice president of RMC Research Corporation, in Denver. (An obvious catch is that nobody knows how many programs rate as high quality. A less obvious one is that attendance often slips when the service project ends.)

Kids at both ends of the academic spectrum, the gifted and the struggling, tend to respond strongly to service learning because it gets them out of their seats and away from textbooks. But just about every student can benefit from the hands-on learning, proponents say.

"To sit in a school for thirteen years and call it an education is, I think, ridiculous," Jon Schmidt of the Chicago Public Schools says. "It's just not interesting to kids. Service learning has a much more profound impact, especially with kids who don't have a lot of other resources. It's a tangible learning experience that people remember. You get it in your gut and your heart as well as your head."

Nature as Nurturer

The best projects offer lessons no textbook can match. Virginia Fair's eleventh and twelfth graders planted more than 200 chestnut trees in the past four years. The kids learn everything there is to know about the tree, "a vital part of eastern American history," Fair says. They study the wood's use as fuel and in making furniture, fences, and leather-tanning machinery. They read odes to the tree and play conkers, a popular nineteenth-century game that involves snaking a string through a chestnut and swinging it in the vicinity of a classmate's head. ("We don't hit each other anymore," Fair says.) The students learn about an infection that has ravaged 4 million American chestnut trees and the techniques being tested to save them.

Some projects take off in surprising directions, fueled by sheer student determination or outrage: Students from two schools -- Chicago's Northside College Preparatory High School and Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School -- participated in a joint leadership seminar. The schools are near each other, but in many ways are light-years apart. Northside has selective admission requirements and a state-of-the-art facility; Vaughn serves teens with cognitive and physical disabilities in a cramped former office building. As a prelude to their service project, creating a Web site for Vaughn, the prep kids toured the latter school and discovered, to their horror, that it had no library, so they decided to build one.

Teachers encouraged the kids to think modestly -- collect old books, raise a few dollars to buy wood and brackets, and recruit parents to build shelves. But the students, far less tolerant than their elders about school-system inequities, insisted that Vaughn deserved better. The kids raised nearly $40,000 in cash and donations of books and furniture. Their success (or perhaps the media coverage it attracted) persuaded the school district to pay for a part-time librarian, and Vaughn's library opened eighteen months after the students set to work.

"What these kids are doing is incredible," says Northside teacher Christine Olsen. "They're solving problems." Decatur teacher Laurie Chetelat echoes the sentiment. "Students learn that it's not all about the government doing things," she says. "It's also our role to give back to the community."

Connections, the volunteer center founded by Decatur students, started with a few committees and a $2,500 grant for a computer and a telephone. Four years later, it has grown into a thriving community hub. Organizations come to rally young people -- Connections recently established a branch of Habitat for Humanity, for instance. Students learn about needs they never knew existed -- at least, not in their hometown. And teens who have a brainstorm about benevolence can find support and volunteers to translate the idea into action.

After watching his grandmother struggle to work a computer, Decatur student Wyatt Harrison spearheaded Surfing with Connections, a program of computer classes for senior citizens. The sessions, held at the school about once every six weeks, draw twenty-five to thirty elderly students (including, once, Harrison's grandmother) and thirty-five or more teen instructors. "It really feels great helping people," Harrison says.

Most kids at the 1,300-student high school apparently would agree. By the time they graduate, about three-quarters of Decatur students exceed the mandatory seventy-five hours in service to their school and community -- all without complaining.

Sources for Service

Ready to make a difference? The following organizations can help.

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse is a comprehensive resource for strengthening schools and communities through service-learning methodologies.

Learning in Deed provides ideas, strategies, tools, and more for linking community service to the classroom.

The National Service-Learning Partnership offers a network of like-minded professionals, plus service-learning tools, resources, and monthly updates.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Service Learning
  • All Grades