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How to Make Service Learning a Graduation Requirement

Photo: Duncan1890/iStockPhoto

Photo: Duncan1890/iStockPhoto

Service-learning is a teaching and learning approach that combines academic coursework with community service. A good program is integrated into classroom instruction, is a clear component of an academic course or curriculum, has explicitly stated learning objectives, and involves organized reflection or critical analysis activities. Service-learning also engages youth in active decision making and responds in a sustained manner to real community needs.** Service learning helps students see connections between their actions and understanding the larger world.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shared some real examples of service learning: 

  • A science class works with a local environmental agency to help monitor the water and soil composition of a nearby river, ultimately linking the local results to global issues of water quality
  • Language arts students serve as tutors to younger students who are writing letters to the editor of a national newspaper
  • A history class studying immigration policies partners with a local library to create an exhibit featuring the oral histories of local immigrants
  • Math students record and graph parking patterns nearby the school in order to recommend a carpooling solution to avoid overcrowding. Students reflect on the implications their efforts have on issues such as global warming and oil consumption. 

Educators report seeing student engagement, academic achievement, and civic responsibilities increase through service learning. Many schools, as a result, have made service learning a graduation requirement.

Define Your Service Learning Requirements
Though the specifics of service requirements for graduation may vary from school to school and from district to district, most policies include the following dimensions:

Duration
The minimum time required. Duration may also refer to the minimum number of hours that must be devoted to a specific project. While duration can be measured in hours, semesters, or even years, it can also be conceived of in terms of projects in order to take the emphasis away from a time requirement and place the focus on participation in intentional learning experiences. [1]

Time Frame
The academic year in which this service must be completed (i.e. not before the start of 9th grade but before the first day of 12th grade, etc.).

Location
Whether valid service includes activities that take place on school grounds or only those completed off campus (locally, nationally, or internationally).

Nature of Service
A list of specific activities that are either permitted or prohibited. This list may distinguish between unpaid or paid positions, projects conducted as part of school sponsored events or with independent service organizations, projects targeting specific populations, and projects that require a low or high level of student engagement with the target community and/or with the school curriculum.

Documentation
A form to be completed by the student and signed by his/her service supervisor detailing at minimum the location and nature of the service project, the student’s responsibilities, and a record of the student’s hours.

Reflection
An oral or written critical analysis of the student’s service experience. This may take the form of a journal, a portfolio, an in-class presentation, or a final project. While some schools do not require a reflection component at all, those schools that have explicit service-learning policies require that service is accompanied by reflection that links the out-of-class activities to subject material being studied in the classroom.

Evaluation
A clearly stated policy on grading. While some schools distinguish only between satisfactory or unsatisfactory completion of the service requirement, others award specific letter grades or points as part of a larger class or as a stand alone measure on a report card. Evaluations may include feedback from teachers as well as from the student’s service project supervisor. 

Appoint a Service Coordinator
A service coordinator at the school or district can help to implement and enhance service in your community and ensure that each student can fulfill the graduation requirement. What to look for in a service coordinator? Here are some recommended responsibilities:

Create a plan for the school. At minimum, the plan should clearly define the service graduation requirement and appropriate projects, establish a system for tracking student service, and outline community outreach efforts. Disseminate plan as appropriate to all school staff, faculty, and administrators. Communicate with other other service-learning practioners to share best practices, tools, and resources.

Act as a community liaison. Develop and maintain partnerships with local, national, and international community organizations for individual and multi-student project sites. Help bring interested community and business organizations in to the school.

Place and track students. For each student, match student interests to community needs, regularly review individual placements, help resolve any problems that arise, coordinate communication between students and site supervisors, and track student hours.

Conduct on-going evaluations of each placement site in order to assess the nature and quality of the activities associated with the placement, opportunities for new projects, and/or capacity for more or fewer students.

Assist teachers in developing new and adapting existing curriculum and creating rubrics and/or other measures to assess student learning. Train teachers on effective service principles and practices and model service-learning in the classroom.

Coordinate media outreach to share innovative projects and newsworthy successes. Present achievements at various workshops and conferences.

Research and write grants to support local, national, and international service projects.

Who can act as a service coordinator?

Part- or full-time professional
A school can hire an additional staff member to act as a part or full-time service coordinator, whose primary responsibilities are those listed above. This person would have prior knowledge of and experience with service in schools as well as expertise in teacher training and curriculum development.

Teacher
In addition to his or her teaching responsibilities, a teacher could be stipended to act as a service coordinator. While this may alleviate financial burdens posed when hiring a separate staff member as a service coordinator, it is important to factor in time and burnout when considering a teacher for this position.

Parent, College/University Interns, or Volunteer Corps Members
While parents, volunteer or paid interns from local colleges or universities, and volunteer corps members (such as AmeriCorps) can be extremely enthusiastic and capable at forging community partnerships, finding engaging projects for students, and acting as role models, they do not always have the curriculum development expertise or the sway with faculty needed to fully integrate service into the classroom. [2]

Author: Deborah Agrin

NOTES

[1] Kenny Holdsman and David Tuchmann, District Lessons Number 2 - The Philadelphia Story: A Guide to Service-Learning System Building, National Service-Learning Partnership, 2004, 22 February 2006 <http://www.service-learningpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=pub_distlessons2>, 10.

[2] Ibid., 17.