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U.S.EDUCATION > The U.S. Education System > The History of Education in the U.S. > Schools, Universities and Volunteering


By Terry Pickeral

    Jonathan tests the quality of water in a stream in northwest Washington, D.C., as part of an eighth-grade service-learning project. To prepare for this activity, Jonathan studied basic principles of biology and the ecology of wetlands in his science class. In his language arts class, he wrote a research paper on how watersheds affect community health. In his social science class, he joined with a group of fellow students to examine successful strategies local citizens employ to enhance local streams.

    Juanita, a sophomore at a major university, volunteers four hours a week in a homeless shelter. Introduced to the shelter and its services through a sociology course, Juanita learned about the diverse causes of homelessness, and was amazed at the number of children that had no place to call home. After completing a research assignment on homelessness and children, and sharing her findings with a community coalition, she signed up to tutor children in a school for students from homeless families.

    The educational system in the United States today affords students like Jonathan and Juanita the opportunity to become engaged in community service that is linked to their course work. As a result, young people are developing an ethic of service and citizenship as they move through their academic routine. But this is nothing new: U.S. public education, in fact, was founded on the principle of educating youth for citizenship. And this principle prevails across the educational landscape.

    Primary and Secondary School Education

    Traditionally, schools engage students in community service. Food drives, environmental projects, community gardening, aid to the elderly and tutoring programs are among the common activities.

    The state of Maryland, in fact, has made community service a requirement for secondary school graduation. All students in the state's public school system must complete 75 hours of service between the sixth and 12th grades. Many private schools have followed suit.

    Jonathan's experience described above is known as service learning -- coordinating carefully organized service experiences with the academic curriculum. According to the Corporation for National Service (CNS), a U.S. government agency that established service-learning as part of the Corporation's mandate, this method "enhances what is taught in schools by extending learning beyond the classroom...[and by helping to]...foster the development of a sense of caring for others."

    Service learning is a function of several converging initiatives, interests and research in education reform, among them new emphases on measurable performance and training in character and citizenship. State and national organizations have begun encouraging and supporting service and service learning, and teachers are being trained in this area.

    CNS statistics disclosed recently that more than three-quarters of a million primary and secondary school students are involved in some form of community service. Each student participating in service learning in 1997 contributed, on the average, more than 15 hours of service that was linked to courses and programs of study.

    A variety of research studies have concluded that service learning has a decidedly positive impact on students. They demonstrate that this phenomenon leads to improved academic performance, gains in knowledge of the service provided, growth in higher order thinking, expanded social and civic responsibility, increased acceptance of cultural diversity, and enhanced self-esteem. Ultimately, it is engagement, not mere exposure, that counts.

    Shelley Berman, superintendent of the Hudson (Massachusetts) Public Schools and chairperson of the Compact for Learning and Citizenship, explained recently how service learning was integrated into the Hudson school system, involving 80 percent of the collective student body during the 1996-97 academic year.

    "We are creating a consistent, system-wide approach so that an ethic of service and an ethic of care is sustained from kindergarten to high school graduation," Berman noted.

    "Teachers at each grade level develop their own initiatives. Kindergarteners are taking part this year in a handicap awareness program that is raising funds for the March of Dimes [a national organization supporting polio research], a student-run recycling program tied to the environmental studies science unit, and a holiday toy drive linked to the social studies unit on community."

    Berman observes that true service learning "helps students make the connections between what they are studying in class and real-world issues. It engages students in action and reflection...and it requires educators to think of students not as future citizens but as active members of their community."

    Volunteers in Schools

    Across the United States, community fraternal, civic and service organizations have focused many of their voluntary efforts on schools. In addition, there are national initiatives (such as America Reads) that place volunteers in schools to increase student academic achievement.

    To assist volunteers and to make their gestures as beneficial as possible, the American Association of School Administrators is currently working to identify the "essential elements" for effective volunteering in school systems. This follows a study, in the early 1990s, that investigated three areas in which volunteers would be, potentially, most effective: in actual instruction; in improving classroom behavior and attendance; and in positively affecting teaching methods and even public attitudes towards education.

    Volunteers in schools re-engage the public in education, contribute new ideas to address school improvement, create a broader sense of community support, and improve school-community relations.

    Higher Education

    Colleges and universities in the United States have a healthy tradition of student volunteering, from ad hoc emergency services to long-term commitments. Student organizations, honor societies, fraternities and sororities, residence units and other campus groups encourage or require young men and women to return something to the community in which the school is situated.

    In 1985, a small group of college and university presidents formed the national Campus Compact, an association committed to campus-based service and service learning. Today, this group, with about 600 members, convenes colloquia and national and state faculty development institutes to encourage and support community involvement and service learning. Campus Compact also initiates projects that address specific service activities -- such as mentoring, or developing campus-community collaborations -- and produces and distributes resource materials.

    The 1997-98 statistics for students at Campus Compact schools are impressive. For example:

      Undergraduate students contributed 29 million hours of service.

      284,000 undergraduates participated in ongoing community service activities, and 316,000 were involved in one-event projects.

      Nearly 11,000 faculty members were active in service learning, and nearly 12,000 service-learning courses were available to undergraduates.

    The parallel to this organization of presidents is the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL), linking college students engaged in service projects. COOL, founded in 1984, is devoted to educating, empowering and mobilizing men and women on campus with respect to community service -- to increase participation and to promote unflagging activism. COOL achieves its goals, typically, through a national conference featuring workshops and networking sessions, publications, regional programs and a leadership program to train and maintain campus coordinators.

    The success and sustained interest in service learning on college campuses is directly related to the institutions' missions, to the role assumed by faculty members, to effective teaching and learning, and to the priorities the institutions have established. A mission might cite a citizenship quotient. Faculty members are encouraged by a sense of responsibility and possible rewards -- including promotion and tenure. The more that service learning is aligned with institutional priorities, the more likely it will be embraced by students, faculty and staff.

    The Future

    Over the past five years, there have been encouraging signs regarding the value and expanded role of service and service learning on college campuses. Given this growth, it is not difficult to see:

      service learning linked more closely to the way teachers teach and students learn.

      more schools training current and future faculty members in the pedagogy of service learning.

      more institutions struggling with the conflict between establishing service as a value and requiring it for graduation.

      more average citizens engaged in school activities by volunteering.

    Schools must change. They must move from merely exposing students to processes and knowledge to engaging them in activities that create and foster knowledge. Communities must assist schools to meet their objectives, rather than merely standing by as critics. And students must develop -- while they're still young -- an ethic of lifelong service and citizenship. As they do so, they may find themselves making career choices based on their service experiences.

    If schools and colleges engage citizens and communities as essential partners in education, service and service learning will become a powerful catalyst for school and community improvement. In that sense, the challenges are not ones of initiating, but rather continuing and enhancing a movement.


    Terry Pickeral is president of Cascade Educational Consultants, a service learning consortium in Bellingham, Washington. He is a senior consultant to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that provides educational policy information to state legislators. He is also a national fellow with the Corporation for National Service.






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