Community Service: Service-Learning in the Schools and at Home

By Melanie G. Snyder

Walker Upper Elementary School fifth graders want to know more about the homeless people they sometimes see. Their teacher works with staff at Teens GIVE (Getting Involved in Volunteer Experiences), Walker School’s partner in service-learning, to arrange for representatives from local agencies that serve the homeless to speak to the class. Teens GIVE arranges for students and their teacher to tour Charlottesville’s parks and downtown mall, sitting and lying down in the places where the city’s homeless sleep. Students try to imagine huddling on a park bench at night, hungry, cold and alone. They work in teams to clean up these public areas where the homeless live. Later in the year, the Student Council holds a canned food drive to benefit a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Students bring their donations with a new understanding of who will use the food.

Eighth graders at Henley Middle School study global citizenship, how to be good stewards of the earth, and issues like sustainable development. They learn of the conflict between commercial interests and natural resources in the gold mining that’s destroying Peruvian rainforests. They find an organization in Peru called ANIA that builds schools to educate Peruvian children about the importance of protecting their rainforests. The Henley students decide to help ANIA build a school. They undertake a month-long project where each child creates craft items which they then auction to raise money. They raise $3000, enough for ANIA to build two schools. The Peruvian children later send photos of themselves and their new schools to the Henley students, along with necklaces they’ve made from seeds from the rainforest.

High school seniors in Government class at Monticello High School are concerned about the trash accumulating at an abandoned lot in a local neighborhood. They go to the county office building to find out who owns the land and research what can be done to apply pressure to get it cleaned up. They encounter local government bureaucracy and are baffled by zoning regulations. Though they don’t succeed in getting the owner to clear the lot, their success comes in the form of a greater understanding of the complex issues surrounding property ownership, zoning and just how far the government can and cannot go in regulating private property. They make a presentation to their fellow classmates and engage in lively classroom discussion about all that they’ve learned about the role of government.

This is service-learning – one of the fastest-growing educational movements in schools today. Service-learning combines classroom curriculum with related community service, offering students opportunities to apply what they learn behind a desk by rolling up their sleeves and taking action in their community. High quality service-learning programs in schools have several key components:

• Community service is linked to classroom curriculum, academic standards and character education
• Students are actively involved in deciding what issues to address and potential solutions
• Students perform service that addresses real community needs
• Students have opportunities to discuss, analyze and reflect on what they’re learning about the issue, approaches and outcomes

According to Learning In Deed, a report from the National Commission on Service-Learning, research shows that students engaged in high quality service-learning earn higher GPA’s and score higher on achievement tests. They are more motivated and engaged in school. General Colin Powell observes, “Service-learning . . . provides a compelling answer to the perennial question ‘Why do I need to learn this stuff?’.”

Through service-learning, students develop teamwork and communication skills and positive workplace attitudes. By working with and serving others from different backgrounds, students gain basic respect for diversity. “Service-learning changes students’ attitudes toward the elderly, the homeless, the poor, the disabled,” says Atalaya Sergi, Walker Upper Elementary School guidance counselor and service-learning coordinator.

Most importantly, students engaged in service-learning acquire the fundamental knowledge, skills and attitudes that will prepare them to become responsible adult citizens – the original purpose of public education delineated by our founding fathers. They learn that they have something to contribute, and that they can make a difference.

Schools with high quality service-learning programs experience fewer school discipline issues, increased school attendance and reduced drop-out rates. According to Learning in Deed, “research shows that, as a result of service-learning, teachers and students tend to become more cohesive as a group, and that positive relationships develop between and among the adults and young people in the school.”

These positive relationships between youth and adults extend to the larger community as well. When service-learning programs address real community needs, young people are seen as meaningful contributors to the community. Community members, nonprofit agency leaders and recipients of service tend to change their perceptions of young people as a result. Most importantly, the whole community benefits from the tangible, positive differences youth make through service.

Growth of service-learning in American schools

By 1999, nearly half of all American high schools and 32 percent of all public schools already had formal service-learning programs. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated that in the 2000-2001 school year, over thirteen million students were involved in service-learning in their schools. Many state departments of education have formal state-wide policies that support service-learning, through service-learning requirements for graduation, inclusion of service-learning components in academic standards and program funding. Across the country, local school boards have adopted service-learning policies, established administrative and funding priorities and provided service-learning professional development programs for teachers.

Two recent major national studies on youth and education have urged policy makers and educators to extend high quality service-learning opportunities to every K-12 student. Organizations dedicated to promoting high quality service-learning for youth have blossomed at national, state and local levels. (See Resources)

In Virginia, “the state Board of Education has no specific policies on service-learning,” says Maureen Hijar, Director, Office of Middle School Instructional Services. The 2003 General Assembly established a new diploma seal for "Excellence in Civics Education". Students will be awarded this seal based on DOE criteria which include 50 hours of voluntary participation in community service or a list of acceptable extracurricular activities. VDOE has also developed an optional leadership development curriculum titled “Leadership for the 21st Century” which includes segments on “leadership through service”. (See Resources)

The local service-learning scene

The Albemarle County School Board has designated “Community service and service-learning in middle and high schools” one of three “Research and Development Focus Areas” on their list of school board and superintendent priorities for 2003-2004. According to the Albemarle County High Schools Program of Studies, “All students are required to complete either community service or service-learning activities during their high school years.” Each county high school approaches this differently. Several county schools have already implemented service-learning and community service programs.

In the Charlottesville City Schools, the school board has not adopted any specific policies with regard to either community service or service-learning. However, several schools in the City have also implemented service-learning and community service programs. (See Area Schools)

Teens GIVE partners with several area schools’ service-learning programs, providing best practices guidelines and serving as a liaison between schools and community agencies to ensure a high quality experience for everyone.

“We currently have over 900 students engaged in nearly forty service-learning projects every week throughout Charlottesville, Albemarle County and beyond,” says Heather Kellams, Teens GIVE Program Coordinator. Through Teens GIVE programs, the local community benefits from literally thousands of hours of service from these community youth.

Kellams also chairs the Youth Service Learning workgroup established by the Commission on Children and Families in November 2003. Representatives from city and county schools, nonprofit agencies, government and local citizens participate in the workgroup. Their mission is to promote high quality community service and service-learning programs for youth throughout the community, to make youth service an active part of the life of the Charlottesville-Albemarle community and to ensure that youth service programs effectively meet community needs. They are conducting a community needs assessment, then will map existing community service and service-learning programs to the identified needs to ensure balance, eliminate duplication and address gaps. They plan to create best practices manuals and guidelines for youth community service and service-learning programs throughout the community, whether those programs are offered in schools, after-school programs, clubs or other organizations. Organizations that choose to adopt these best practices will help ensure that both the youth involved and the community benefit from these programs.

What service-learning isn’t

Many schools require students to perform a certain number of hours of community service, either as part of a social studies class grade or as a requirement for graduation. When such requirements are not explicitly tied to classroom curriculum and don’t include student reflection and classroom-based discussion of issues, they are not service-learning. Some local educators interviewed for this article question the value of school-mandated community service in the absence of clear connections to classroom learning and discussion. “Some of the kids feel like it’s forced labor and resent it,” observed one educator who prefers to remain anonymous.

Several parents interviewed expressed similar frustrations. Said one father, “The school requires ten hours. So the kids focus on somehow adding up ten hours worth of stuff from this list the school provides. It promotes the wrong attitude and approach to volunteering.” Many schools require students to complete school-mandated community service outside of school hours, placing the responsibility for arranging and carrying out the community service on the student and the family. However, some students lack the family support and resources necessary to meet such requirements.

“Unfortunately, some poorly structured community service programs in schools have actually done more harm than good and have given school-mandated community service a bad name,” says Shaele Wood, Volunteer Center Director for the Thomas Jefferson Area United Way.

What parents can do

“Parents can make a huge difference in the success of their children’s community service experience,” says Margie Shepherd, teacher at Henley Middle School and founder of the school’s Citizenship Project. First, she says, parents should make sure they understand the requirements of the school’s program including due dates, number of hours and what documentation the student is required to submit showing what they’ve done. Ask what will be done in school and what students need to do outside of school hours. Find out what discussions will take place in school about the community service work students are doing.

Once you understand the school’s requirements, talk with your children about why community service is important. Marian Wright Edelman calls volunteering “our rent for living on earth”. Help them to understand the right reasons for engaging in community service, not “because I have to turn in a log sheet that says I did 10 hours”.

“Help your children find issues they’re passionate about,” says Shepherd. “They’ll stay with a cause that is meaningful to them, they’ll want to work to make a difference, and ‘numbers of hours on the log sheet’ won’t be an issue.” Hannah Bailey, Monticello High School teacher and service-learning coordinator adds, “Help your children to identify their own strengths and talents to apply to a cause. There are many ways and levels at which youth can make a difference.” Children can work independently or with groups of friends, on projects they design or for local agencies. “Empower your children to develop their own ideas about what they’d like to do,” advises Shepherd.

If your children want to volunteer with an agency that addresses certain issues, they can search for volunteer opportunities through the United Way Volunteer Center database ( maintained by the Volunteer Center of United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area. Be aware that some agencies are not able to provide volunteering opportunities for younger children due to legal and other issues. You can search for volunteer opportunities for various age groups through the United Way database.

Many agencies welcome families volunteering together. Even in agencies that may not accept younger volunteers individually, parents may be able to volunteer with their children. Family volunteering is an excellent opportunity for parents to model good volunteer behavior. It also provides rich opportunities for families to learn together about community issues and engage in meaningful family discussion about these issues. Volunteer Weekend, the first weekend in December of each year is one of many local opportunities for family volunteering.

Whether children volunteer with you or on their own, take time to discuss the volunteer work with them. What are they learning? What do they see that could be different? What new understanding have they gained? Look for opportunities to help them make connections between their volunteer work and current events, social and economic conditions, the law and other factors that play a role in the community need.

If you’re engaged in additional volunteer work on your own, talk with your children about what you do. Even if they can’t participate, they’ll learn from your positive role model. The authors of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World found that children who see the caring activity of a ‘public parent’ – one who is publicly active in a manner that conveys concern and care for the wider community – in turn develop a sense of responsibility and commitment to the greater good in their own lives.

Finally, do all you can to support your children’s teachers in their efforts to implement high-quality community service and service-learning programs. Share information on service opportunities with teachers. Offer to assist with coordination and logistics if your circumstances allow. Model and promote positive attitudes toward service in your own home. Most importantly, encourage your children in their efforts to make a difference through service so that one day they might say, as Marian Wright Edelman did, “I have always believed that I could help change the world, because I have been lucky to have adults around me who did.”

Melanie G. Snyder is a freelance writer based in Crozet. Her articles have been published in children’s magazines, Cricket and Guideposts for Kids, and in national, regional and special interest magazines and newspapers. She teaches a course she developed for teens on community activism and making a positive difference. You can reach her at

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