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Learning About Life: New Focus on Service as a Teaching Tool

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Three years ago, Pedro P. Reyes was a member of a tough Los Angeles street gang.

He had no plans of finishing high school, much less of going on to college, and he spent his free time "gang banging"--his term for dumping trash cans and vandalizing the city.

Today, Pedro is finishing up his senior year at Belmont High School in Los Angeles with high grades and plans for college study in psychology.

Described by school officials as a "model citizen," Pedro Reyes has been nominated for the first national Youth Volunteer Phil6anthropy Award for work he performed as part of a districtwide program that draws students into community service.

Operating in 22 Los Angeles high schools, the Youth Leadership Program is part of a growing national movement toward school-based community-service projects.

It is an idea many say may offer not only benefits to participants and their communities, but also solutions to some of the social ills that plague too many public schools.

Last month, Vice President George Bush, the Republican Presidential nominee, capped a year of increased political emphaisis on youth service with a proposal that would provide for a federal challenge-grant program to encourage participation by high-school and college students in volunteer work.

His proposal includes a commitment of $100 million in federal funds, to be matched by private funding, that would be made available for such projects as school community-service programs.

According to Frank Slobig, director of Youth Service America, Mr. Bush's proposal was "like gold" to groups such as his, which have long been promoting service as a learning tool.

"Educators have seen school-based service as a peripheral item, not central to their agenda," Mr. Slobig said. "But these proposals on the national level have really increased visibility."

He predicted that "there's going to be a lot of discussion on the issue in the coming year."

'A Most Critical Factor'

Part of that discussion may center on defining the proper components of a school community-service program; much will involve how to fund such initiatives.

Supporters say community service should go hand-in-hand with classroom learning. It can be an effective "learn-by-doing" vehicle, they say, through which schools can teach values and good citizenship without getting into the sticky area of ideology.

Others argue that service also offers job-training opportunities and can teach vocational skills. And there is some research showing that it can be a highly effective dropout-prevention technique as well.

A few educators have criticized policies requiring community service after school, however, because it cuts into the time most students need for part-time work or study.

The ideal school-based service program offers time during the school day to meet that commitment, as well as time in school to reflect and discuss the student's experiences, said Mr. Slobig.

Many after-school programs, he and others pointed out, include minimal pay for the work involved, to supplement time lost from part-time jobs.

But such drawbacks are outweighed, according to Cathryn Berger Kaye, director of the Youth Leadership Program in Los Angeles, by the biggests plus community service offers: its ability to help young people build their self-esteem and to ease the transition into adulthood.

"Every human being has a need to be of use in society," said Ms. Kaye. "This can be the most critical factor in a child's schooling: engaging a young person in a personal educational experience."

"It has made me change," offered Pedro Reyes. "Older people might say that teens are just goof-offs, into gangs and drugs and stuff. But this gives us a chance to prove something, that we can make a change, make our community better."

Popularity Growing

Service has long been included in the curriculum of private and religious schools, but it has not been seen as a top priority in public schools.

The idea gained popularity with the publication in 1983 of High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's president, Ernest L. Boyer. That report represented the first national call for public schools to require a certain number of hours of community service as a condition of graduation.

This month, a nationwide "Day in the Life of Youth Service" celebrated the various programs now in place throughout the country.

Based on the comments of participants in that event, which was sponsored by the ysa, Mr. Slobig estimates that most school-based service activity has occurred among individual schools as experimental projects.

About 3,000 junior high and high schools have established some sort of school-based volunteer program, mostly with foundation funding, the ysa estimates. The programs range from after-school service opportunities for academic credit to efforts to bring community service into play throughout the entire curriculum.

At least two districts--the Atlanta and Detroit public schools--require a certain number of hours of after-school community service for graduation, Mr. Slobig said.

Only four states have adopted statewide initiatives to promote or require youth-service opportunities: Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

The main stumbling block, he said, has been money--and the lack of convincing data showing a correlation between community service and academic outcomes.

'A Piece of the Puzzle'

In 1985, David Hornbeck, then superintendent of schools in Maryland, became the first state chief to propose a statewide mandate that schools provide community-service opportunities as elective courses for credit.

"Originally, a lot of people thought that community service was tangential, that it messed up school schedules, and cost money," he said. "But, more and more, people are realizing that the issue of teaching values or attitudes through service is a piece of the school-reform puzzle that is being very successful with kids today."

Compliance with the state mandate was slow, however, until last January, when Mr. Hornbeck hired an unsuccessful Congressional candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to coordinate the newly created Maryland Student Service Alliance.

Since then, 10 of the 24 school districts in the state have begun offering service opportunities for credit during the school day, and another six are "moving in that direction," according to Maggie O'Neill, a spokesman for the alliance.

The mandate, however, was not accompanied by state funding. Mr. Hornbeck noted that though the state increased general funds that year for use in such projects, many schools ended up spending the money on other needs or activities they considered more important than service.

'The Hornbeck Effect'

Pennsylvania officials said they hope to avoid that problem--which one called "the Hornbeck effect"--by earmarking specific state grants to set up school-based community-service programs.

This month, Gov. Robert Casey signed into law an initiative creating a new agency within the state government to coordinate and provide grants for school-based service programs.

Known as PennServe, the organization has been promoting service projects in schools for more than a year as an interagency body, relying mostly on private funds.

The amount of state funding it will have available has not yet been determined, according to Gene Linkmeyer, a spokesman, who said the state grants will be used primarily to seed private donations.

According to a PennServe survey, at least one school in 67 of the state's 501 districts has initiated community-service projects so far.

But the idea has not yet sold on the district level, Mr. Linkmeyer said.

"The educational structure doesn't really recognize the values we're talking about here," he noted.

"They are more geared toward testing--filling in little footballs with No. 2 pencils--seeing schools as holding cells for working parents, and having an instructional mentality," he added. "It's tough to get them to talk about the socializing factor" involved with the service issue.

Incentives and Fellowships

In Minnesota, where Gov. Rudy Perpich has placed the issue high on his agenda, legislation was passed last year providing state incentives--50 cents per student affected--for schools that develop Youth Development Plans, which often include a community-service component.

Officials say about 100 school districts in the state have put some sort of service program into effect in schools this fall, with most offering community service as an elective class for credit.

The state board of education is currently considering a mandate like Maryland's. But Ted L. Suss, administrator for the state board, said that would depend on whether or not the state provides further resources for schools to comply with the requirement.

Connecticut has offered state funds to support school-service programs, but has no requirement.

This year, legislation was passed creating two $100,000 fellowship programs--one for elementary and secondary schools, and one for higher education--that would pilot-test the community-service concept.

'A Double Bang'

Among individual school programs, one of the most popular trends has been peer tutoring, which Mr. Slobig of ysa said offers schools "a double bang for their buck."

For the past four years, the Valued Youth Partnership Program in San Antonio has targeted at-risk youths at high schools and middle schools in five districts to serve as tutors in elementary schools.

Funded by the Coca Cola Foundation with a $100,000 grant, the program is aimed at curbing the 45-percent dropout rate in the districts, especially among Hispanic youths, according to Alicia Salinas Sosa, the program's coordinator.

The biggest benefit has been the growth of participants' "self-concept," Ms. Sosa said, but it has also helped the students--both tutor and tutored--stay in school.

In the second year of the program, which included 100 students, six of the tutors dropped out. Last year, with 150 tutors in the program, none dropped out.

"These students learn that they have skills, that they're smart," Ms. Sosa said. "They also realize, being behind a teacher's desk, how hard it is to try to teach an unwilling learner."

A Curriculum-Wide Plan

In Colorado, Don L. Joiner, principal of the Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs, has been the first to incorporate community service into the entire school curriculum.

Three years ago, Mr. Joiner established the hugss program, which stands for Helping Us Grow through Service and Smiles. It is completely funded by the district.

Pupils are divided into three grade-level teams, each of which adopts a certain community agency to work with throughout the year.

But all of their work is brought back into the classroom for discussion, a factor that all supporters of school-based service say is vital to its success.

Mr. Joiner said his next step is to evaluate the effect of the service experience on his students. But he added: "My gut feeling is that this makes sense."

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