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'All Students Can Serve'

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Middle school students visit a senior citizens' home once a week to discuss with the residents historical events such as the Great Depression, World War II, and Watergate. The result is a vivid, firsthand account of history that their textbooks could never convey. The students also learn about communicating with hearing-impaired people and about the natural aging process. The seniors find companionship and make a contribution to students' learning. This is service learning.

High school students study botany to learn about various trees' nutritional needs and ecological value. They plant trees on the school property to replace vandalized ones planted years ago in memory of deceased students. This is service learning once again.

Schools can truly engage students in service to the community. As a matter of public policy, schools can and should make it clear that caring for others and the community are characteristics of responsible adults. And we should engage students in learning that is relevant, interesting, and purposeful. Service learning accomplishes these objectives.

Service learning is clearly compatible with the role of schools in our society. The mission of public education nationwide is similar to that of my state: "To continuously improve public education in Maryland so that each learner acquires the skills, knowledge, and values necessary to become a responsible citizen and enjoy a productive life." We are encouraging graduates of public schools to become responsible citizens.

Service learning is a process that inculcates the values and skills of good citizenship. By addressing community problems that students themselves identify, they get to know their communities--the people, the problems, and the way competing interests must be juggled. These activities are basic for citizens in any democracy. The framers of the Constitution believed that the health and longevity of our democracy would depend upon an informed and engaged citizenry. To that end, students must actively participate in their communities, in addition to performing rigorous academic study.

A national survey of young people conducted last summer revealed that youths want to be involved in their communities. Ninety-five percent thought students should be required to serve as part of their schooling. And 75 percent said they do not serve because they don't know how or have not been asked. Service learning, which couples service to the community with preparation and reflection activities, unleashes the energy and idealism to make a difference in the community. Here, teachers' roles in service learning are especially important; in order for students to learn from their service, they must be able to prepare, then reflect and discuss their experiences.

A basic premise of service learning is that young people are a vast resource in our communities. Service learning gives them meaningful work and cultivates a sense of belonging. One state, Maryland, and 25 percent of all U.S. school districts have the stated expectation that youths can and should become involved citizens.

All students can serve. Each person can do something to care for his or her community and the people in it. Students help younger peers by tutoring, helping with homework, coaching little league teams, and assisting adults to run after-school activities. Fire and rescue squads and emergency preparedness organizations are served by young people who join their cadet programs. Community organizations, like libraries, museums, and parks, are served by young people who help with special projects and everyday activities. The list is endless. Whether they have special needs or are at-risk, students serve their communities while they grow personally, socially, and intellectually.

In 1992, the Maryland board of education became the first in the country to require students to participate in a service-learning program in order to graduate. Starting with the class of 1997, a Maryland high school diploma will represent not only the achievement of academic requirements, but also the performance of service learning. Both encourage students toward their highest potential.

Service learning is an integral part of Maryland's other statewide reform efforts. It provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning, achievements, and competence. Educators, too, have a chance to assess students' learning in authentic situations. Service learning affirms the value of learning from real, rather than vicarious or simulated, experiences. Finally, service learning is one viable way to engage the "whole village" in educating our children. Adult volunteers and supervisors at service organizations become, in essence, educators, serving as role models and providing guidance.

All 24 districts in Maryland have designed their own service-learning programs. To earn the superintendent's approval, such programs had to include developmentally appropriate preparation, action, and reflection, as well as a record-keeping mechanism to mark students' progress toward fulfilling the graduation requirement.

Because we are the first state to tackle such an effort--engaging all students in service learning--we have had to begin from scratch, developing models, leadership, and resources for service learning. Over time, the districts and the state education department have together built consensus around good classroom practice and how to administer service learning on a statewide scale. Our practice has evolved and improved. We have documented what we have learned and are using these tools to evaluate and continuously improve service learning.

Another challenge facing our mandated service-learning program has been to match the public's understanding of the spirit of the law with the reality of its implementation. Service learning, because it sounds like volunteering, is accepted or rejected on that basis rather than the educational process it is. The proponents have had to take time to educate the public, policymakers, and teachers about service learning.

Mandated service learning is controversial. Some people in the community confuse it with the "community restitution" that judges order criminals to perform. And it raises questions about the academic value of students' association with religious organizations, scouts, or other groups. In addition, some feel that the value of an individual's contribution is diminished if everyone is doing it. But controversy has helped us articulate our goals and broaden the dialogue while helping the community come to consensus on the value of service learning.

Some teachers' resistance to "the reform of the month" is another hurdle. The cynical view that "this too shall pass" has forced some school systems into crisis mode. Now that graduation for the first class with the service-learning mandate is just over a year away, a couple of school systems are scrambling to inform students and parents of the requirement.

Next year, some 40,000 Maryland students are expected to graduate, having participated in service learning. All 24 school systems have developed service-learning programs. Maryland has also developed statewide program-improvement tools based on what teachers and administrators have learned. We are implementing service learning hand in hand with other education reform efforts, including school-to-work programs and Maryland's school-performance assessments.

The Maryland service-learning program is now a potential model for other school systems and state education agencies. Although we faced challenges as the first state to mandate service learning for graduation, we feel service learning is an integral part of public education--to invite students to learn while serving their communities.

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by Adria Steinberg and John Shea.

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