Service as Systematic Reform

How one district uses service learning as a long-term school improvement strategy by SHELDON H. BERMAN

Over the past decade many educators have realized the power and potential of service learning.

As an instructional strategy, service learning enhances academic instruction through authentic tasks that empower young people. It also helps create a more caring and respectful school community. In fact, service learning may be our best approach to teach participatory citizenship and give young people the skills to be critical thinkers in a complex social and political environment.

Too often, however, service learning is the private interest of one teacher or a group of teachers who create wonderful student projects that are disjointed from the larger improvement efforts pursued by their school or district. Alternatively, a school may become involved in a once-a-year fund-raiser in support of a good cause.

In both cases these efforts are fragmentary and, although they are beneficial in their own right, they have only limited impact on students. Service learning can have a broad and powerful impact on the student performance and school culture if it is integrated into curriculum and instructional practices on a consistent basis.

Well implemented, service learning is much more than a singular activity. It is more than older children tutoring or assisting younger children and more than students raising money for a local food pantry or entertaining at a retirement home. Although these may be part of the culture of service, a systemic approach to service learning means helping students make the connections between the subject material and issues in the larger world. It means engaging students in action and reflection on important community, social, political and environmental issues.

But most importantly, it means providing service-learning experiences marked by continuity, depth and meaningfulness that are embedded in the curriculum and culture of the school and institutionalized as a core instructional strategy.

The first step in creating a systemic approach that institutionalizes service learning as an instructional practice is to think about it differently. Instead of seeing service learning as a series of one-time events that teach children about doing good for others, it must be seen as an integral strategy for the development of social, civic and academic skills that begins in kindergarten and extends through to graduation.

A District Commitment
Hudson is an industry-based community in central Massachusetts with 2,800 students in six schools. The student body is culturally and socioeconomically diverse with a significant bilingual and low-income population. With this diversity in income and population, Hudson provides an ideal community from which to examine the dynamics of institutionalization.

For the past six years, Hudson has been developing a comprehensive service-learning program. Our overall goal in integrating service learning into our curriculum is to foster the development of an intellectually thoughtful, socially conscious and socially responsible citizenry. We want to enable young people to be powerful thinkers and to think with clarity, precision and depth.

But we also want students to develop a personal investment in the well-being of others and of the planet, to be concerned about the world around them and engaged in its improvement. Service learning is central to accomplishing both our academic and our citizenship goals.

To realize our goal, we have situated our service-learning initiative within the context of our long-term improvement efforts. The district has been moving toward inquiry-oriented and problem-based forms of instruction that engage students in real-world applications. We believe this approach will best support student learning and the development of higher-order thinking skills, as well as give meaning to the subject material. We are committed to service learning because it exemplifies this instructional approach.

Integrating Units
The key to institutionalization is tying service learning to the district's standards or curriculum in ways that clearly advance student performance. For example, in 4th grade, Hudson's science program focuses on a variety of environmental, earth and life science concepts. As part of our science program, we have initiated a year-long study of wetlands areas near our elementary schools. Students take water samples, collect data on plant variety and collect "species ambassadors" who spend a short period of time in class before being returned to their natural environment.

This program has enriched student learning by focusing on significant content over an extended period using a hands-on, student-inquiry methodology. Integrated into the unit is the study of the fragility of the wetlands and the need to preserve and promote the quality of the environment. As part of their study, students clean up the wetland areas, develop nature trails to educate others about the value of wetlands and work to certify vernal pools. These service-learning activities have deepened students' understanding of the material by connecting the content to a larger sense of meaning and purpose.

These 4th graders, drawn from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, not only love what they do and what they learn but score in the top 20 percent of all 4th graders on the new high-stakes Massachusetts curriculum assessment test. Service learning was not an add-on to the curriculum, but deeply integrated in and consistent with the rest of the content.

Similarly, in our 9th-grade program, English and social studies teachers collaborate on a year-long course with the essential question of "What is a just society and an individual's responsibility for creating a just society?" In this course, students study the Holocaust and other acts of genocide using the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum.

Central to the course is the discussion of one's "universe of obligation," that is, the degree to which one is responsible for others. As part of expanding this universe of obligation, students are required to find a way to help create a more just society through a service-learning project. Again, this service-learning experience is an integral part of the course material and gives meaning to the subject matter.

However, institutionalization of a reform strategy is more than just one or two powerful units of instruction integrated into the curriculum. If service learning is to be a systemic reform strategy, it must comprehensively and consistently cut across all curricular areas and grades.

A Comprehensive Program
Over the past six years teachers and administrators in Hudson have worked to create a comprehensive preK-12 service-learning program. We are committed to integrating service learning into all classes and grade levels in a way that enhances the effectiveness of our instructional program. This involves ongoing professional development, collaborative planning, institutionalized teacher leadership and strong administrative support.

The entire faculty has engaged in professional development experiences in service learning. In addition, several times a year we use our monthly curriculum coordination meetings to build consistency across schools and grade levels, ensure our service-learning programs include adequate student preparation and reflection and address key standards within the curriculum frameworks.

To encourage the expansion of service-learning initiatives we use teacher mini-grants to support new initiatives as well as summer curriculum funds to support curriculum development.

In addition to providing professional development and curriculum planning time, teacher initiative and leadership have been essential to building the program. From the early stages, our service-learning program has been nurtured and promoted by a team of teachers representing each of our schools.

This leadership team planned the in-service programs, developed the mini-grant program, pursued and won grants to fund service learning in the district and provided the planning and oversight. In addition, they created service-learning reference and resource kits for each school library, served as consultants to teachers and developed an introductory packet for every teacher that contains guidelines for projects, a list of 100 service-learning ideas and a list of local organizations.

Annual Experiences
Our planning, professional development and teacher leadership efforts have resulted in a program that begins in our preschools and continues through high school with the goal of having students experience at least one service-learning activity tied to the curriculum each year. Each grade develops its own initiatives.

In kindergarten all students are involved in several efforts: a disability awareness program that raises funds for the March of Dimes; a student-run recycling program tied to a environmental studies unit; a mathematics and social studies activity involving the construction of quilts that are then donated to a battered women's shelter; and a holiday toy drive linked to a social studies unit on community.

Our 1st graders have an ongoing relationship with senior citizens at our local senior center that helps teach students basic literacy skills. Our 2nd and 3rd graders raise money and collect food for our local food pantry. Our 4th graders engage in an environmental field studies program that involves protecting and caring for wetlands and other natural areas near our schools. Our 5th graders work with classrooms of children with multiple disabilities to develop an awareness of and respect for diversity. They also serve as reading buddies with 1st graders.

As service learning moves into the middle and high schools, the projects become more team- and course-oriented. In addition, through a collaborative of 12 school districts, we have developed a student leadership program that provides our older students with such service-learning leadership training experiences as student leadership conferences, summer institutes and courses.

Through these efforts, we have been able to develop a consistent and comprehensive program that enhances our instructional program. We set a district goal of having the majority of students, at all grade levels, involved in some form of service learning.

Currently, more than 80 percent of our student body is involved in service learning each year with 100 percent participation at the elementary level. As recognition for what we have been able to accomplish, our high school won the National Service Learning Leader School Award from the Corporation for National Service in 1999.

Administrative Support
This level of progress could not have been accomplished without administrative support, endorsement in district policies and public acknowledgement through forms of recognition. As superintendent, I am committed to helping sustain and build the program.

To demonstrate this commitment to service learning, I chaired the service-learning committee in the early years and continue to serve on the committee, now that teachers have assumed the chairperson's role. I made it clear to principals that I expected teachers to find a way to integrate service learning into their class. I supported the use of curriculum time for systemwide service-learning planning. I found sufficient funds through grants or through the district's budget to maintain our mini-grant program, stipends for district leaders and funds for curriculum development. I also helped secure the support of Hudson's school committee.

In order to institutionalize service learning, the district also has embedded it into basic district practices and policies. Service learning is identified as one of the school committee’s approved goals for the district. It is reflected in the mission statement of the district. It is listed in Hudson's advertisements for new teachers as one of the qualities we are looking for. It is one criteria for selection of new faculty given to screening committees. And all new teachers are given a full day of training in service learning prior to their first year of teaching in the system.

To provide recognition for the service-learning program and to highlight the importance of service learning in the district, the school committee sets aside one of its meetings each year for a service-learning exposition. Numerous projects are displayed and parents and community members learn about our students’ efforts.

In addition, the school committee approved special Superintendent’s Awards for Service for students at each school. These awards are presented to middle and high school recipients at school graduation ceremonies by a local, state or national political leader to highlight their importance. This type of recognition demonstrates publicly the district's commitment to service learning.

The development of a systemic service-learning initiative can take place in many ways in a district. However, institutionalization of service learning cannot take place without the support of administrators, district policies that ensure its continuity and explicit acknowledgement of its importance.

Responding to Parents
Gaining the support of parents and the community is also important. Two years ago, we surveyed parents to assess what they most valued and how they perceived our schools’ performance on 50 indicators of school success. Over one-third of parents responded to the survey.

Parental views on the importance of pro-social development and service learning stood out among the responses. Between 80 and 90 percent of parents indicated they highly valued these indicators: "a student body that demonstrates concern for the well-being of others," "a student body that demonstrates pride in their community" and "a student body involved in community service." The results showed that parents clearly want the school to play a role in helping their children grow up to be caring, responsible and involved people. In Hudson, they now see that service learning is one important vehicle for accomplishing that.

The community has a similar need. We are living in a time when adults are suspicious of our youth and tend to have very low opinions of them. Similarly, as the declining civic participation among young adults shows, young people feel alienated and disaffected from our social and political community and withdraw from participating in this arena.

Service learning provides the bridge between young people and their community in such a way as to give young people a sense of hope, an experience of community and a belief in their own personal effectiveness. In addition, it helps members of the community understand the contribution students can make to community improvement and brings them in direct contact with students and the instructional program of the school. Service learning can be an important bridge between the community and the schools.

In fact, service learning makes good news for schools, parents and the community. Over the past year, Hudson's local newspaper has featured headlines declaring "Hudson students show their community pride," "Hudson High students commended for service," "Students reach out with food for needy," "Quilted lesson in caring: Hudson students bring smiles to homeless kids," "Students learn through service," "Students in environmental class create nature trail at school" and "Wetlands program wins school state environmental award."

This positive news builds the bridge between the school and community and helps the community see young people as caring and thoughtful individuals. It also legitimizes the program in the eyes of parents and the community.

Reclaiming Pride
Through articulating a vision of how service learning can enrich the curriculum and by providing teachers with professional development and curriculum planning time, teachers have come to understand the value of service learning and develop high-quality practices.

Through teacher leadership, the district has empowered champions who have rallied teacher support for and commitment to the program. Through policy embodied in goals, hiring practices and forms of recognition, the district has communicated the importance of the practice to faculty, parents and the community.

Finally, through sustained funding, the district has given teachers and administrators the support and resources necessary for the program's success. Such efforts ensure that service learning can become an institutionalized feature of the curriculum that no longer requires a champion to carry the torch.

In Hudson, we have seen service learning play a critical role in reclaiming our pride and confidence in public education. It provides young people with experiences of community and connection that give them meaning and direction. It enriches our academic program and improves student performance.

Nationally, the challenge is to think of service learning as we would any other systemic reform initiative and bring together the resources necessary to create broad-based implementation and institutionalization in our public schools.

Sheldon Berman is the superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools, 155 Apsley St., Hudson, MA. 01749. E-mail: shelley@concord.org. He is the author of Children’s Social Consciousness and the Development of Social Responsibility and co-editor of Promising Practices in Teaching Social Responsibility.