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'Community Problem-Solving 101'

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By Adria Steinberg and John Shea

"Many of us don't realize how important it is to look around us once in a while and figure out what we can do to help the community, because basically it all comes back to us and our quest for success. And I must admit I am one of those people. You don't really realize that working to improve things ... is what's gonna help keep you going down the road. So that's basically what I'm looking for. A method to keeping my mind open to the community and to achieve my goals in life."

A student wrote this essay in response to a recent assignment in a class called Community Problem-Solving 101. His request does not seem at all unreasonable: He wants his school to help him do well and do good. Those of us working in high schools know how difficult it is to help students reach either of these goals. Wouldn't it be at least twice as challenging to do both?

At the Rindge School of Technical Arts, the answer we have arrived at is a surprising no.

Few people will argue with the idea that students can contribute to their communities--and learn in the process--as long as the service-learning and school-to-work programs are executed well. In our struggle to increase the level of engagement of students in school, we have discovered the value of community exploration and public- or private-sector internships as contexts for real learning. Tearing down the walls between school and community makes it possible to lay groundwork both for authentic school-based projects and for community- or work-based projects that give students new reasons to engage in school.

For example, in the CityWorks program, freshman students select an aspect of life in their community that they would like to investigate. (Health, entertainment, and retail businesses were all topics of recent projects.) Working in small groups, they have several weeks to do research and field work, with the stipulation that most of the sites they visit must be within walking distance of the school. The project culminates with the group conducting a presentation containing their findings. These include descriptions of their sites, texts of interviews, photographs, and, in many cases, three-dimensional models.

The students then focus on neighborhoods of the city in the throes of revitalization and redevelopment efforts. Their projects involve a mixture of simulation, such as designs for and models of new buildings and businesses that they would like to see developed, and products with an immediate use to neighborhood groups or agencies, such as T-shirts publicizing particular community-renewal efforts.

Because of the community-oriented nature of the work, both projects have had the unanticipated payoff of greater community interest in our program as a whole. Perhaps most significantly, the students' fieldwork functions as a natural outreach mechanism for finding community businesses and agencies that are willing to sponsor job-shadowing opportunities for our 10th-grade students as well as longer-term placements for older students.

We encourage students in their junior and senior years to participate in school-to-work transition and service-learning opportunities. One central dilemma in urban communities today is that an increasing number of students seem to be more engaged, hence more open to learning, in workplace and community settings than they are in the classrooms where they are expected to spend six hours each day. It is our task as educators, then, to find appropriate settings where adults are willing to be mentors to students and to do everything we can to enhance the learning potential of those sites.

In our school-to-work programs, the teacher works closely with work-site supervisors to structure a seminar at the work site during "work" time for students in similar placements, such as hospitals and other health settings. The seminar allows students to reflect on their work, to practice skills--particularly written and oral communication--that are vital to workplace success, and to learn more about all aspects of the industry in which they are working. At the school site, academic subjects like human anatomy and physiology are redesigned to emphasize the kinds of problems and tasks facing health practitioners.

Over the course of their internships, students carry out several projects that are jointly negotiated with supervisors and teachers. In order to figure out what they can do that will make a real contribution to the ongoing work of the site and have educative value for them, students must develop both self-knowledge and knowledge of the site.

In our Cambridge Service Corps program, a diverse team of juniors and seniors develop a shared vision for what our city ought to be, do a reality check of current needs, produce an inventory of local resources, decide on a target problem, and then organize a communitywide service project to address it. The year-long program makes up almost half the corps members' entire course load. The Cambridge Service Corps is unique; it is school-based and grounded in an academically rigorous curriculum. In this course, community projects are not seen as merely extensions or applications of the curriculum, or as an extracurricular afterthought; rather, community problem solving is the curriculum. The students' work leads them into the domains of social studies, language arts, and technical arts, earning them credit in all three areas.

Although we have seen the value of our work-oriented and community-focused initiatives, it has been obvious to us from the start that we must move beyond inserting such initiatives, one by one, into the margins of the high school curriculum. Taken together, work-based learning and service learning frame a vision of a very different, and, we believe, ultimately more engaged and powerful kind of learning. In this model, students analyze and solve real problems that present themselves in communities and workplaces; teachers use these problems to provide their students with ongoing practice in doing projects and presentations and to lead students into important domains of discipline-based knowledge.

In preparing students for their future lives as community members and wage earners, some of the most important skills we can help them develop are the ability to assess real community needs and fashion responses to them; carry out complex, messy, multi-step projects; and communicate their ideas to relevant audiences.

Clearly, what we are talking about here goes beyond tinkering with the high school; it requires institutional change. This is more likely to come about when we recognize that school-to-work and service-learning programs are manifestations of the same basic educational ideas--that students learn better when they see the curriculum in action.

From a societal perspective, this type of education produces both the competent worker that a healthy economy demands and the engaged citizen that a participatory democracy demands. From an individual perspective, it fosters both personal fulfillment in a meaningful vocation and a deeper sense of connection to one's community. Consequently, students instilled with an appreciation for the true value of education (namely, its positive application to creating ourselves and our world) graduate with more than a deep understanding of the world. They graduate knowing they have a purposeful role in it.

The authors work with the Rindge School of Technical Arts and the Cambridge Service Corps, respectively, both of which are housed at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Mass.

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