Schools Offering More Service Opportunities, Study Finds

By Michelle Galley — October 06, 1999 3 min read
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Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s public schools are coordinating community-service activities for their students, and one-third are providing service-learning programs, according to a federal report released last week.

For More Information

“Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools” is available online at bid=1999043.

The 18-page report, “Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools,” includes results from what is described as the most comprehensive national survey of public elementary, middle, and high school officials on those programs.

Two previous studies of service-learning and community service were not as complete, according to Chris Chapman, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which published the report.

But by comparing the current findings with those in the previous studies, done in 1984 and 1996, the report suggests that more schools are implementing service activities.

“There is tentative evidence suggesting that there has been an increase,” said Mr. Chapman, who wrote the most recent report with Rebecca Skinner of Westat, an independent research firm in Rockville, Md.

The authors surveyed a national sample of 2,000 public school principals last spring; 1,832 principals responded. According to the report, 64 percent of all U.S. public schools arrange community-service opportunities, defined as non-curriculum-based activities that can be mandatory or voluntary, and do not necessarily include learning objectives. Cleaning up a local park, for example, falls under the report’s definition of community service.

The study also concluded that 32 percent of all public schools, and half the public high schools, include service-learning in their curricula. The report defines service-learning as “curriculum-based community service,” such as when students learn about the environment by keeping the area around a local lake clean, then studying the area’s soil and water composition in the classroom.

‘Lab for Citizenship’

The top two reasons respondents listed for implementing service-learning activities were to help students become more active members of the community and to increase student knowledge and understanding of the community.

Some school officials also cited the importance of teaching critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

“Part of the purpose of service-learning is also to act as a teaching tool, and to that end, apart from these better-citizen issues, schools are also using it for academic reasons,” Mr. Chapman said.

In Maryland, which in 1993 became the first state to make community service a graduation requirement, creating responsible citizens is the top priority.

“In a way, this is a lab for citizenship, for students to better understand their role in the community,” said Ronald A. Peiffer, the assistant state superintendent for the division of school and community outreach.

According to Mr. Peiffer, the graduation requirement was originally proposed as 70 hours of service time, but some local districts have modified it to include service-learning.

“Schools have been trying to do a variety of things,” he said. “Some activities are keyed into the curriculum and done during school hours.” Others, he said, are “fairly front- line community service, where there are some very serious needs, like nursing homes and soup kitchens.”

But regardless of how the requirement is met, Mr. Peiffer said it is imperative that students participate in effective programs. “The key piece,” he said, “is to ensure that the students have good-quality experiences.”

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