Is Service-Learning the Hidden Gem of Education Reform?

This November, seven U.S. states are tackling education reform with ballot initiatives for increased funding for buildings, more resources, and stricter teacher evaluations. While it is exciting to see an emphasis on these issues—which greatly impact students—what if we gave students the opportunity to actively take part in their own education?
Enter service-learning. Like the GOOD community, the approach is about not just learning, but learning and doing. Take this example: Students in an environmental studies course go out and remove trash from a polluted stream in the neighborhood, test and study the causes of the pollution, and then write an article to inform citizens. Students are reinforcing classroom concepts while learning how to be engaged agents in their community, effectively gaining life and academic skills.
Service-learning programs are set up at colleges and universities across the country. At the University of Southern California, where I go to school, the Joint Educational Project (JEP) aims to bridge the gap between classroom learning and community engagement, believing that “service is more informed by theoretical and conceptual understanding and learning is more informed by the realities of the world." While receiving extra credit in their class, some 2,000 USC students a year teach what they're learning in class to students at local schools in South Central. For many students, it is their first time outside of the “USC bubble” and their first time as teachers and mentors. As a program assistant and volunteer at JEP for the past three years, I've seen the challenges and outcomes of service-learning projects.
I'll never forget my own first JEP experience. I was a Los Angeles transplant from Massachusetts—a freshman living in a city for the first time. While adjusting to SC life, I also found myself adjusting to the community around USC and grew to realize the intertwined and important relationship between the school and the neighborhood. Going to teach kindergartners French each week at a nearby elementary school renewed a passion in me for the language and helped LA feel a bit more like home. Each semester, I watch a similar cycle occur with the students I work with: apprehension about teaching, excitement in achieving new goals, and ultimately an understanding and self-confidence that only comes through first-hand experience.
Some students think that giving extra credit at JEP is manipulative because “grades are used merely as leveraging points for philanthropy." In fact, many people interpret service-learning simply as a form of volunteerism because of the interaction with the community. However, this misconception ignores its true educational nature: it is not a one-time philanthropic project but a recurring, continual cycle of learning, adapting, and discovering. And in that light, it too can be evaluated like any regular coursework. The true telltale of the success of JEP is the fact that hundreds of students choose to participate again, reinforcing that each experience offers a new opportunity for growth.
Similar to how internships are seen as an essential way to gain "real life" experience in a future career field, service-learning can be used to enrich students’ education through real-world interaction and collaboration. Two years ago, GOOD interviewed Dr. Jim Kielsmeier, the president and CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council and the creator of a service-learning curriculum, the Generator School Network. By empowering students and engaging them in their personal interests, Kielsmeier believes that service-learning can have a very impactful role in reducing the dropout rate and solving other educational issues that our schools face. But first, people need to know about this hidden gem.
Does your school have a service-learning program you can get involved in? If not, check out this toolkit from the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse with tips on starting your own.

Image (cc) flicker user MistyHCunningham

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