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Americorps Is Coming

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AmeriCorps is Coming!'' announced a mailing sent out by the Corporation for National and Community Service earlier this year inviting educational institutions to propose programs that would serve communities and provide tuition benefits to participants.

In response, school and college administrators, along with state officials, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, and others, have prepared grant proposals for the three entities that fall under the corporation's general purview: AmeriCorps, President Clinton's new national-service program; Learn and Serve America, a program strengthening service-learning in schools and colleges; and Summer of Safety, a program involving young people in crime-prevention efforts in local communities.

As part of this national effort, Learn and Serve America programs are offering special opportunities to involve school-age youths in service-learning. For example, the K-12 school-based and community-based Learn and Serve America programs will fund projects that integrate service-learning into both daily school activities and community-based programming that meet local, educational, public-safety, human, and environmental needs.

The amount of funding is not trivial. In fiscal 1994, $30 million will be available through Learn and Serve AMerica for teacher training, for the placement of service-learning coordinators in schools, and for grants to local partnerships through state education agencies, state commissions, and grant-making entities. The aim is to enable participants to reflect on their service experiences in ways that will enhance their academic learning, civic responsibility, and community problem-solving skills.''

Corporation officials want to "get things done'' as soon as possible, and the proposals no doubt will promise short-term impacts in the community. (The deadline for proposals for the K-12 school-based Learn and Serve America program was April 29, 1994; the deadline for the K-12 community-based projects is May 27, 1994. Deadline for the state portion of the AmeriCorps National Service program is June 15, 1994.) But will these initiatives improve the institutional infrastructure for service-learning, develop durable linkages between school and community, and have lasting significance?

What are the characteristics of school-based programs that combine service and learning over the long haul? Institutions with successful programs address some combination of the following:

  • Systematic planning: Service-learning takes serious planning at the school and in the community: What do we want to accomplish, and how will we do it? What resources are available and needed? What are our strategic strengths, and what forces may limit our efforts?
  • Varieties of service: Students may work in homeless shelters and tutor in the schools, but will they also register new voters and mobilize grassroots groups for social change? Will any effort to solve problems or meet needs be acceptable?
  • Capabilities of community agencies: Some agencies meet community needs and accommodate students better than others. Agency capabilities--for example, to fit assignments to students and provide quality supervision--are essential to the learning process.
  • Adequate agency resources: Agencies require time, money, and personnel to provide high-quality learning experiences for students. Does the agency have travel money, office space, and regular hours to consult with students?
  • Orientation and training: Students are unequal in their readiness for service and need planned orientation and specific skills to function effectively and learn from experience.
  • Clear expectations: Service-learning benefits from a written contract negotiated by the student and the supervisor in conjunction with a liaison from the school. This document establishes a plan for specific assignments, clarifies role relationships, and promotes accountability.
  • Meaningful responsibilities: In contrast with "classroom'' learning and "routine'' volunteering--such as answering telephones and making photocopies--meaningful service has real impacts. It has potential to genuinely challenge students and strengthen their social responsibility.
  • In-service reflection: Service-learning is a process in which people serve the community, reflect critically upon the experience, and derive lessons for the future. It takes skilled facilitation to pose awakening questions, analyze root causes of problems, and develop awareness of solutions.
  • Quality supervision: Competent supervisors have knowledge of the community, skills in working with students, and commitment to the learning process. Top practitioners are not always the best field instructors.
  • Program coordination: Service-learning is a professional field that requires qualified coordinators, but they need an institutional infrastructure with sufficient capacity to support this function.
  • Community participation: Community development starts with people assessing their needs, setting their goals, and planning programs of their choosing. But how many schools involve the community as true partners in service-learning?
  • Strengthening social diversity: Service-learning can strengthen respect for social diversity by engaging students in activities with people who are different from themselves. Since many students come from homogeneous backgrounds that limit their social contact, special efforts are required to develop their multicultural competence.
  • Evaluation: As a systematic process, evaluation--of the student, supervisor, service outcomes, and learning performance--has short- and long-term benefits for developing capacity in the school and in the community.

In short, successful service-learning takes more than a proposal to the Corporation for National and Community Service. The key is neither to show results nor get a government grant, but to build institutional infrastructure, develop durable linkages between school and community, and show results over time.

Corporation officials are anxious to "get things done,'' and school administrators want to write winning proposals. Community service-learning is not measured by a semester or summer, but by continuing commitment and lasting significance over the long haul.

Further information on the national-service program and the funding appropriations for fiscal 1994 is available by calling (800) 942-2677.

Barry Checkoway is a professor of social work and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

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