Guest Column

A Civic Mission To Do What’s Right

by William J. Cirone

From day one the mission of public schools in America was to instill and nurture the values of democracy. The reason was simple: Democracy can flourish only when an informed citizenry takes part in the process. We see this basic concept underscored these days at far reaches of the globe where democracy is struggling to take root.

Public schools always have been seen as one important mechanism for instilling the values of citizenship by teaching history, social studies, government, and rights and responsibilities. That goal seems even more important in today’s world.

As daily life becomes more complex and distractions from mass media and entertainment grow exponentially, the challenge of getting young people to care about their country and their communities becomes more daunting. Yet several tools remain to assist public school leaders.

High on that list are the opportunities for community service and meshing it with academic learning. The blend, as most educators know, is called service learning and it appears to make a real difference in the lives of those who take part.

Studies show that students involved in community service tend to be more involved and better citizens, and they also improve their academic knowledge and skills.

Nationwide our communities are filled with individuals who work for community betterment, in large and small ways, as volunteers or professionals or even just here or there as a worthy issue arises. To maintain those worthy activities, we all need to light that inner spark in our young people. We need to give them the chance to feel it.

Cultivating Service

To do this as educational leaders, we must support and encourage programs that provide students with the chance to feel the glow that comes from serving — for them, for us and for our communities — and we must use that enthusiasm and experience to supplement academic knowledge, drawing both together for a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."

In Santa Barbara County, Calif., we have a program that helps foster the values of democracy. It is called “Care and Share” and it is made possible by the Santa Barbara Foundation. It is designed to cultivate and instill the ethic of service and philanthropy in our youth, passing along this rich tradition from one generation to the next.

Through this program, teachers countywide in grades K-8 apply for grants that can be used toward classroom projects that encourage philanthropy. The idea is to develop an appreciation of philanthropy and community service by focusing on students at an early age. The project is coordinated by Teachers Network, a national program that has a local affiliate in the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

The goals of Care and Share are reached in various ways at various grade levels.

Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, high school students provide needy community members with free, accessible and respectful income tax-reporting assistance. The students demonstrate they care by giving their time and knowledge to help others in this concrete fashion. The class works in partnership with the local Internal Revenue Service for training and guidance, while the students fine-tune their own math and language skills in the process.

Through Cooking With Kindness, 7 th and 8 th grade students plan, purchase and prepare food to share with preschool students in programs within walking distance of their own classroom. They also teach the preschoolers basic table manners and read them stories. In addition, they provide food to Meals on Wheels patrons and homeless shelters.

The program even works at the elementary level. Through one recent Care and Share grant, Planting Kindness, 6 th graders grow houseplants from seeds and plant them in terra cotta pots they decorate with messages of kindness and caring. They bring those plants to a local hospital to help spread some cheer.

Planting Seeds

The important point to stress is the reinforcement of the core value of caring for others, which has a rich tradition in our country. As Albert Schweitzer said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know, the ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

That is the core value that is at the heart of this project — planting the seeds of our community’s future philanthropists by involving young people in the act of giving so that they can experience the feeling and the sense of satisfaction that results. They will not just give things; they will give of themselves by providing service. And they will do so in a way that enhances those they serve, their community and their own academic skills in the process. It’s a wonderful concept and all those involved have been excited about the implementation and the results that flow from the process.

At its heart, that’s what democracy needs in order to thrive — doing what’s best for the good of the order. Charles Stewart Mott once wrote: “Let us be known by our deeds, and not by our money.”

I hope scores of students will soon know exactly what he meant and will get hooked on the feeling.

Bill Cirone is superintendent of the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, 4400 Cathedral Oaks Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93160. E-mail: He is chair-elect of the National Center for Learning and Citizenship.