Opinion
Teaching Commentary

Service Learning: An On-Ramp to National Service

By James C. Kielsmeier & Jim Scheibel — September 05, 2008 6 min read

As a pregnant teenager and school dropout, Isis Martinez could have abandoned educational hope and purpose. Instead, she found a school designed to make education come alive for her. She learned science while teaching other young parents about prenatal nutrition, and earned social studies credits by working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She also gained math and construction skills while helping build public housing in Chaska, Minn., just outside Minneapolis.

After her twin boys were born, Martinez continued developing her English skills by working as a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer in a student-run coffee shop and used-book store that offered bilingual literacy programs for families.

While the roots of opportunities such as these can be traced to vocational education, and even back to John Dewey, Martinez is also the product of a K-12 school system grounded in service learning, the intentional combination of academics and service. Had she not participated in service learning, first as a tutor of younger students in middle school, then in her high school alternative program, Martinez might not have found her way. At 18, she likely would not have perceived herself as having skills to offer her larger community. Through her experiences, though, she cultivated a habit of service that now benefits both her community and her growing family.

Our home state of Minnesota has been leader in advancing service learning as an educational approach—and with profoundly positive effects over the past 25 years. The National Youth Leadership Council, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization we serve as president and board chairman, respectively, has played a large role in this. Ours is a state with strong roots in progressive education, community involvement, and refugee resettlement—all of which are fueled by high levels of civic engagement and volunteer action. Because of pioneering programs and state policies close to home, Minnesota’s two U.S. senators at the time, David Durenberger and Paul Wellstone, joined with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in supporting the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993.

A small stream of federal funding started flowing to service-learning programs in the early 1990s, through the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America program. Since then, philanthropies such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Kellogg, Wallace, and State Farm foundations have stepped up to strengthen service learning as a school reform strategy and a key part of the larger national-service movement. This support, and that of local partners, has paved the way for profound change in the number of schools that offer students service-learning opportunities. We’ve seen young people from kindergarten through college grow academically, as well as in civic engagement and leadership skills, as a result of efforts they have undertaken to rebuild hurricane-devastated communities, monitor environmental quality, and welcome immigrants into their communities. In this time when young people have a longer and an increasingly problematic transition to adulthood, we’re finding that service offers them new ways to gain the skills and confidence they need to succeed and lead—and that it gives adults a new perspective on students as resources for their communities.

That is why leaders from every sector of American society are coming together in an initiative that supports the belief that service should be an even more integral part of who we are as a nation. Called ServiceNation, this coalition is launching this month a campaign designed to bring national service—both civic and military—to scale across the country. The campaign’s launch will be a two-day summit beginning on Sept. 11 in New York City. Its highlights will be a candidates’ forum on service, followed by a nonpartisan convening of 500 national leaders to ratify a “Declaration of Service.”

The declaration will be aimed at reinvigorating the push for national-service legislation whose goal would be to involve 1 million Americans of all ages, from kindergarten through retirement, in part-time and full-time service by 2020. A follow-up Day of Action, on Sept. 27, will involve more than 100 organizations and a million Americans in advocating for the legislation behind ServiceNation. Significant support for this advocacy work comes from partners such as the AARP, Time magazine, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Target Corp.

The education sector has a major role to play in this united effort. With more than 4.7 million K-12 students like Isis Martinez invested in service learning, we know that it can be an on-ramp to a lifetime of active citizenship. Research demonstrates that young people who take part in service learning are more likely to vote, are more likely to stay in school, and have higher educational aspirations. A recent report by John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises cites service learning as an effective strategy for preventing young people from leaving school. And analysis of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study suggests that service experiences required as part of high school courses raise the odds of graduation from college by 22 percentage points.

For civic engagement to reflect the diversity that is America, public education systems—the training grounds for democratic participation—need to be involved.”

But we also know that fewer than a third of our schools provide students with the meaningful service-learning opportunities that can inspire them to stay engaged and view themselves as resources. Although a limited number of service-learning programs currently receive some federal funding (about $37 million is granted through the CNCS to states each year, an amount that has fallen since the first funds became available), most schools find ways to offer service learning without additional funding.

ServiceNation aims to increase opportunities for K-12 service learning in three ways: (1) through the Learn and Serve Engaged Schools initiative, challenging school-community partnerships to develop and actively disseminate the most innovative ways to engage students in service learning; (2) through Youth Engagement Zones, funding consortia in high-risk communities to address the dropout crisis by engaging young people in tackling problems; and (3) through A Summer of Service, offering young people the chance to spend a summer serving together with a diverse group of peers in their communities as a “rite of passage.” These initiatives, mirroring creative programs such as the National Youth Leadership Council’s Generator School Network and WalkAbout Summer of Service, will help prepare a generation of young people for academic success and for meaningful roles in their neighborhoods and our nation.

For civic engagement to reflect the diversity that is America, public education systems—the training grounds for democratic participation—need to be involved. Our nation needs everyone to contribute: honor students and students who have been incarcerated; teenage parents and students who contribute to their family’s incomes, and students headed for private colleges. They all need to be involved, both because they have skills to offer and because educational gains will result.

So, on this commemoration of Sept. 11, 2001, we must direct attention to the importance of national service as a way to address the country’s most pressing concerns. And, equally important, we must pledge our support to local efforts to integrate service learning into school systems where habits of involvement are first seeded, and where young people like Isis Martinez begin the path to a life of engaged citizenship.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week

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