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Community Problem-Solving 101

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Launched in Boston a decade ago, the City Year program continues to be one of the best efforts in the nation aimed at providing young people with hands-on opportunities to engage in community-service work--and to grow and learn in the process. Unfortunately, that nonprofit program's ongoing struggle has been trying to find the millions of dollars needed to reach more kids and build a financially sustainable organization in the face of annual operating costs of roughly $20,000 per participating corps member.

Public high schools, on the other hand, are operating off a fairly stable revenue stream (our property taxes and the like) and are serving millions of teenagers at a relatively economical annual cost of around $6,000 or $7,000 per student. What the schools are struggling with is providing all of our children with an engaging and relevant education of high quality.

What follows logically from this--assuming that (1) we believe more of our kids should be working together, learning about their communities, and applying their knowledge and skills to improve the world; (2) we are committed to building higher-quality schools that give students an authentic, engaging context in which to apply and see the relevance of what they are learning; and (3) we recognize the need to be as cost-effective as possible with our finite dollars--is that every one of our high schools (public and otherwise) should have a City Year-like service-corps program based in the school and fully integrated into the curriculum.

Working in Cambridge, Mass., over the past three years, we successfully piloted such a program--the Cambridge Service Corps--at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. We have shared our efforts with more than a hundred visiting educators from all over the country, and are currently completing both video and written documentation of our model. Striving to redefine how much young people are capable of contributing to their community--and of learning in the process--we ask these CSC students to commit about half of their academic and extracurricular loads for a full school year to an authentic, A-to-Z community problem-solving process. The students create a shared vision for their community, decide (after extensive study) what they believe to be the community's most critical problems, select a target issue, and then plan and lead a schoolwide service project.

The corps members (a deliberately diverse team of about 50 students arranged into three or four "crews" of 12 to 15 students each) are supported by one or two teachers. They collaborate extensively with dozens of community partners and learn social studies, language arts, math, science, and vocational arts in a powerful real-world context. Their work shows up on their transcripts as Community Problem-Solving 101 and is credited toward actual graduation requirements. The CSC headquarters, a classroom the students redesigned and renovated themselves, also serves as a communitywide resource center. Students stop by to sign up for volunteer opportunities, teachers pick up service-learning curricula to use in their own classes, and local residents come by to register to vote or check out information on neighborhood issues. More than just a concentrated initiative, the service-corps program acts as a catalyst and promotes civic engagement throughout the entire school and community.

And because our CSC model is not really a separate new program but actually a more powerful way for students to learn the same basic things we have been trying to teach them all along, the costs are minimal. We don't need a bigger school budget, we simply need to reallocate some of the money that is already there: Even from a hard-nosed economic perspective, it's perfectly reasonable to advocate that every high school should start its own service corps. And, for that matter, every middle school and college should probably do the same. Several hundred thousand young people would be engaged in meaningful service and learning in the process. And all without any significant need for new funding.

In contrast, City Year (which recently expanded to several other U.S. cities) engages a few thousand young people in service each year at a total dollar cost in the tens of millions. And President Clinton's AmeriCorps program (in some ways a national effort to reach more young people with City Year-like programs) engages fewer than 25,000 participants in service each year at a total cost of more than half a billion dollars. Granted, these programs also provide corps members with stipends and scholarship awards. But, regardless, it's just not possible to expand such programs--no matter the quality--to a large enough scale to reach a more significant number of young people.

Of course, our work at Rindge and Latin also makes good sense from a purely educational perspective. Kids learn best through active participation in authentic, project-based work, not through passive participation in contrived classroom exercises. Community problem-solving gives students the real-world context they need to make sense of what they are being required to study. Corps members, whether they are Harvard-bound or at risk of dropping out of school, begin to develop a real ownership for their education and come to understand that "rigorous academic learning" and "working to make the world a better place" are one and the same. They not only get excited about what they're learning and what they can do with it, but they also get excited about themselves. They begin to understand that they have a role and a purpose on this planet.

And viewed from a broader education reform perspective, we see that the service-corps model has been designed to act as a point of friction within the school system. Ridiculously short 45-minute class periods, overly departmentalized curricula, graduation requirements based mostly on seat time, and an often pathetic lack of connection between schools and the real world just outside their doors are among the many conditions that need to change. The service-corps model is one straightforward way to begin to bust through outdated institutional barriers and create needed changes--from the bottom up and from the inside out.

There are no reasons--or at least no good reasons--why we shouldn't be piloting service-corps programs at high schools throughout the country, as early as next September. With some determination and time, this relatively simple idea could prove to be a powerful strategy for both improving our schools and engaging more kids in affordable youth-service opportunities.

We simply need to get beyond our narrow, often self-serving convictions about what schools should look like, what youth service should look like, and how we go about paying for these activities. If we were to slow down just long enough to take a good hard look at everything from a more holistic, big-picture perspective, we would not go on doing things the way we are now.

John Shea is the creator and a former teacher and director of the Cambridge Service Corps at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass. He is a consultant with the Big Picture's New Urban High School initiative in Cambridge.

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