Focus

Mentoring for Superintendents on Service Learning

COMMUNITY SERVICE by CYNTHIA PARSONS


Adecade ago, fewer than 20 percent of the public secondary schools in Vermont encouraged students to do community service and even fewer helped the students to integrate civic service with a study of civics.

Today, every high school in Vermont has some students doing community service, and more than half of the schools manage to integrate what’s done for the community with the academic curriculum.

These schools allow students to learn civics by carrying out civic duties. Service learning, which combines community service and academic coursework, is on an upward trend nationally.

Discontinuous Support
However, my involvement over the past 11 years with a federally funded service learning program known as "Learn and Service America" suggests that student community service takes a backseat whenever a new superintendent is hired to run a school district. I would like to offer a solution to that break in continuity.

A superintendent I once worked with in Westchester County, N.Y., had been in the same district for many years, during which time he encouraged every teacher to find ways to engage students in community service. When he moved to a new superintendency on Long Island, he realized he didn’t know the volunteer leadership in town and discovered that community service was not built into the school program.

He started asking questions and found a former teacher, still very active in civic service, who had always involved her students in service-learning projects. He called this wise elder and asked, "Will you be my mentor?"

Actually, he asked if she would be his "teacher," and it was she who suggested she’d rather be his mentor. The superintendent wasn’t the only new hire that year, and he asked his mentor if she could find other community elders to serve as mentors for each of the new teachers and one new principal. He wanted mentors who not only could help these educators become personally involved in the community, but help them with the logistics of finding student placements.

Then the superintendent asked his mentor if it would be a good idea to invite the appropriate volunteer supervisors to come to the school district and meet with him. The wise elder asked, "Wouldn’t you learn a great deal more about the working conditions for your students if you went with me and visited the supervisors, one by one, at their offices?" This the superintendent did, and the community service program got off to a rousing start.

Why Required Service?
As experienced superintendents know, for the past several decades students who have done community service have done it as punishment quite unrelated to their academic coursework.

Today, there is a serious movement away from this gap between the study of civics and actually doing civic service. All the more reason that the new superintendent in town needs the assistance of a community elder versed in where student volunteers will be welcome.

Today’s superintendents don’t want their students involved in community service that alienates the student from the very "village" that provides their basic support system. They particularly want the service done by the students to meet real community needs.

Student Advocacy
In retrospect, here is a suggestion my former superintendent would have loved. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about it until years later.

A superintendent of a small-town school district in Vermont was not enthusiastic about youngsters in middle school leaving the building to do service learning. Three of the teachers were all fired up to provide such opportunities for their students and had taken several workshops about how to blend the academic coursework with the kind of labor the students would be doing.

They wondered how to gain their superintendent’s approval. They turned for advice to a senior citizen in the town. He suggested that once a placement had been arranged the participating student should go to the superintendent’s office and describe what his duties would be, why he thought it would help his schoolwork and ask the superintendent what he thought about the plan. It worked.

The superintendent found that the one-on-one discussions about service learning not only helped the students get a firmer grasp on what it was they were expected to do and to learn, but gave him a better understanding of community needs. He asked the teachers how they had come up with this idea, and they told him about the community elder who was helping them. The superintendent then called on the same wise elder to be his community service mentor.

At a statewide meeting of school administrators, he talked about his mentor and about his total change of attitude about having students perform service learning integrated with their coursework. I don’t know how many other administrators he influenced, but I do know one who suggested to the special education teacher in my hometown that she choose a mentor and begin getting her students involved in service learning activities.

I am the mentor the special education teacher chose.

Cynthia Parsons is the founder and coordinator of SerVermont, a community service initiative. She is the author of Serving to Learn, Learning to Serve: Civics and Service From A to Z. She can be reached at P.O. Box 516, Chester, VT 05143.