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Learning Through Service

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"But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down there.''

So said the poet Maya Angelou to the multitudes gathered before the Capitol and the millions listening around the world on Inauguration Day 1993, as a new era in American political life began. While the words were meant for all Americans--all concerned with the social and economic health of our nation--it was to our young people that the cry of the Rock was flung most forcefully, for it is they who must stand and face a distant destiny of hope.

Unfortunately, today many of our children are hidden in shadows of fear and poverty and ignorance, consigned from birth to a life without hope or opportunity. By allowing these conditions to exist and to persist, it is we who cower in the shadows of society, and it is we who must now join in the effort to create a sustainable future for our children. As educators, we must embrace reform initiatives designed to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty and exploit the vast creativity, energy, and intelligence present in every child.

Given the inherently limited role of schools, reform must be comprehensive in order to have a lasting and appreciable effect on children's lives. We must reconsider the relationships between teachers and students, and we must critically assess our very notions of learning. In place of conventional norms, we need only embrace ideas axiomatic to successful educators: Children rise (or fall) to the expectations we set for them, and learning is (above all else) a product of constant practice.

It is in the spirit of these premises that Maryland embarked on a comprehensive school-reform initiative, demanding excellence from every child and every school. We facilitated the creation of school-improvement teams to involve parents and community members in assessing the progress of their schools. We developed performance-based assessments to accurately measure students' ability to apply and integrate knowledge. And we adjusted graduation requirements to reflect our commitment to active learning and the practice of higher-order skills: Among other things, all students must now follow either a career or college program, conduct scientific laboratory work, tackle geometric and algebraic concepts, and engage in service to the community.

While our raised expectations and our emphasis on active learning strategies stem from sound educational theory and practice, the last requirement--the concept of "service learning''--represents a first in state education policy and engendered a great debate in Maryland.

By way of history, Maryland has a rich tradition of promoting student service through the public school curriculum. Indeed, Maryland was the first state to require local education agencies to offer elective credit for community service. Last July, the state board of education elevated service-learning to a formal requirement, encouraging school districts to develop local programs that infuse service-learning into the broader curriculum. In order to receive state approval, local service programs must include preparatory activities, meaningful service arrangements, and opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences. If a district does not develop a local program, students may fulfill the requirement by performing 75 hours of service, along with appropriate preparation and reflection activities, between 7th grade and graduation. (For the record, every district in the state has opted to develop a local program.)

The debate sparked by the service-learning requirement revolves around three basic issues: (1) Will it represent another burden on the time and human resources of schools already hard-pressed to teach the "basics'' and meet other curricular requirements? (2) Between liability and transportation expenses, will the total cost be prohibitive? (3) Will mandating service devalue the experience?

These are valid questions that Maryland has had to answer as it prepared to implement a service-learning program in 24 diverse local school systems. Fortunately, the experiences of students in Maryland and in a number of school districts around the country serve to assuage such concerns. Consider, for example, the worry that service-learning would steal time from other subjects, most notably mathematics, science, English, and social studies. In fact, service experiences can be, should be, and are infused into these curricula, thus enhancing instruction in the "basics'' by allowing students to apply skills they learn in the classroom.

Two hundred 7th-grade science students at Harper's Choice Middle School in Howard County, Md., are planting marsh grass and painting storm drains with "Don't Dump--Chesapeake Bay Drainage'' signs as part of their ongoing investigation into the condition and preservation of Maryland's most precious natural resource, the bay. Chesapeake Bay Middle School has taken a more local and comprehensive approach to environmental protection: 150 students are rehabilitating a public field adjacent to the school, a project that requires scientific analyses of the local ecosystem, mathematical skills to measure and study the field, and written testimony demonstrating the practical use and civic importance of public space.

This last project also illustrates how integrating service into the curriculum is possible without additional cost. Students at Chesapeake Bay Middle School engage in service near school grounds, so transportation is unnecessary, and instruction occurs within the framework and budgets of existing courses. Another example of this no-cost infusion model is the Fairmount Harford Institute, a vocational secondary school in Baltimore. Senior citizens come to Fairmount to receive a range of services, such as basic medical care from nursing students and aid with correspondence and consumer issues from business students. This arrangement eliminates transportation concerns, minimizes liability considerations, and allows students to engage in community service in the context of established courses.

Even when service remains external to the curriculum, community-based projects and collaboration with local organizations have allowed districts throughout the country to institute service requirements without breaking the bank. Perhaps the best case involves the Atlanta public school system, which has mandated student service for the last eight years. Over that time, the district has not allocated any money to what is considered a successful service program. Districts in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan likewise boast low-cost service projects.

Beyond logistical considerations, the most formidable barrier to service-learning involves its perception as inherently paradoxical "compulsory voluntarism.'' Sadly, this common perception trivializes the value of service-learning, which addresses issues of citizenship far beyond the scope of voluntarism. As Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University has written, "Thinking that the national problem of civic apathy can be cured by encouraging voluntarism is like thinking that illiteracy can be solved by distributing books on the importance of literacy.''

Instead, most problems are solved by persistence and perspiration (99 percent of the genius equation, according to Einstein). Just as literacy skills are honed through constant reading and laboratory experiments reinforce scientific knowledge, service represents a citizenship workshop where the principles of democracy become reality. When students at Chesapeake Bay Middle School participate in the restoration of a public space and reflect on their work, they become better advocates for the environment and learn the value of cooperation to complete a job. In essence, they become better democrats (with a small d).

When pupils from Lake Clifton/Eastern High School in Baltimore tutor elementary students in reading and math through the SPLASH program (Secondary Pupils Learning About Success and Helping), they walk away with the knowledge and faith that they--as individuals--can make a difference. For much of Lake Clifton/Eastern's "at risk'' student population, who daily face acute social problems and will one day bear the economic burden of an aging population, such confidence is of special importance. Listen to Danielle Turner, a 9th grader at Lake Clifton/Eastern who serves as a tutor:

"I put a lot of effort in trying to help the students because I remember when I was in elementary school, we did not have programs such as SPLASH, and I really needed extra help. ... I think I have also changed a lot because I thought to myself one day, 'While I am trying my best to help others, why not help myself?' Ever since that day, my attendance has improved as well as my grades. I am really proud of myself and my tutees.''

At a recent legislative hearing on the subject of service-learning, I heard many eloquent adults testify in support of service-learning, including a student-service organizer, Bob Burkhardt, from Estes Park, Colo., who said simply, "We can't think our way to humanity.'' Other voices added claims that our requirement will provide an energetic conservation corps for an increasingly fragile environment; that it will build skills applicable to other academic disciplines; and that service provides a mechanism for imparting the values of democracy, which the education historian Lawrence Cremin once described as a central function of public education.

Mostly, though, I listened to the children, the dozens of students who echoed Danielle Turner's sentiments, lamenting that all too often, the young people for whom service-learning would mean the most do not take advantage of elective opportunities for service. I listened intently to them because they exuded the self-esteem and confidence that we hope service will instill in all our students. I listened to them because they had the courage to stand upon the Rock and gaze out upon a collective destiny. And perhaps that is all the evidence we need.

Nancy S. Grasmick is the state superintendent of schools for Maryland.

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