Focus

A Powerful Partnership Impacts a Community

by Rodney R. Lafon

The formation of partnerships plays a critical role in the overall success of any program, organization and/or business.

This statement holds true in the circles of education where administrators and teachers consistently work together searching for new opportunities to engage students in meaningful learning experiences that connect them to the real world.

One such opportunity was realized for students in St. Charles Parish, La., when a motivated middle school science teacher with an out-of-the-box idea took teaching and learning from inside the classroom and transplanted it into our local wetlands.

Enriched Learning
With the support of leadership at the school and central-office levels, the LaBranche Wetland Watchers service-learning project was created to allow students to explore a real-life science lab where education goes hand-in-hand with service. Service learning is a method of teaching that enriches learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their schools and their communities. Through careful integration with established curriculum, lessons gained from hands-on activities heighten interest and enhance academic achievement, citizenship and character development.

Through the LaBranche Wetland Watchers, more than 1,100 students each year attend service trips to an adopted site in the wetlands. Throughout the school year, students plan and participate in activities such as water quality monitoring, macro-invertebrate collection and identification, litter cleanups, soil and plant identification and tree planting. This year students focused on creating what will one day become the first public nature trail in our region.

All service activities are tied to required academic standards in each of the core subject areas.

Facilitating Partners
When people think about partnerships, often funding is the first thought. Though funding is necessary, the experience and human resources provided through partnerships are more valuable than any grant.

The expertise brought into the classroom serves as a primary source of knowledge for the students. They are hearing directly from the professionals in these fields. They are seeing firsthand how the material they learn is applied. Students receive the benefit of years of experience in specific fields, something a textbook cannot replace.

For example, most partners participate as activity facilitators. This allows our partners to share their expertise on topics that meet required state academic standards and benchmarks. Our partners work with our students at school, in the classroom and on service trips.

The LaBranche Wetland Watchers service-learning project encompasses more than 35 dedicated partnerships with a variety of resources, including many parish, regional, state and national agencies, state universities, non-profit institutions and foundations, local businesses and international corporations. These partnerships have provided more than $600,000 for the service-learning project through monetary donations, equipment, grants and in-kind services.

Our partnerships develop awareness and support for education within our community. Once partnerships are initiated, maintaining these relationships is vital to the program's ultimate success. Acknowledging the support provided by our partners and communicating with them regularly leads to sustaining healthy partnerships.

Making a Difference
This project is making a significant difference on many levels. First, students are given an opportunity to apply the information gained in the classroom to real-life situations. Middle school students use what they have learned while guiding more than 500 elementary school students on wetland trips each year.

Over the past last six years, these students have spoken to more than 45,000 adults and students about wetland conservation during outreach events. Through education, service and awareness, students lead a community effort for wetland conservation.

Secondly, as these adolescents are trying to find direction in their lives, they are given the opportunity to make a positive contribution to their community as productive citizens. They are able to belong to a group where they do not have to be the smartest, fastest or strongest. Many students who are considered at-risk of failure in the traditional classroom excel in this type of learning atmosphere.

The students are dealing with real concerns affecting their future in southern Louisiana. They are discovering what a great feeling it is to be valued, contributing members of the community, and they want to continue that feeling. Since the program's inception six years ago, 29,000 hours of service have been volunteered, 2,300 trees have been planted and 1,000 bags of litter have been collected.

The issues surrounding coastal and wetland erosion have been brought to the forefront of the consciousness of the community and the children who represent the area's future through this service-learning project. Students in St. Charles Parish Public Schools are saving local wetlands that can preserve an entire region and a state.

Rodney Lafon is superintendent of St. Charles Parish Public Schools, 13855 River Road, Luling, LA 70070. E-mail: rlafon@stcharles.k12.la.us. The author acknowledges the contributions of Barry Guillot, middle school science teacher; Rochelle Cancienne, director of public information; and Regina McMillan, communications coordinator. The project received the 2006 National Civic Star Award co-sponsored by Sodexho USA and AASA. Application deadline for the 2007 award is Aug. 11.