Schools say no time for service learning

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In September 1997, the School Reform Board made 40 hours of community service a requirement for graduation—beginning with this year’s sophomores—and directed schools to weave the service into classroom studies. As the program now stands, schools don’t see how they’re going to do that.

John Mullins, the service learning coach at Taft High School, sums up the predicament of coaches citywide. “This program means getting kids into a program, doing the follow-up, keeping up with their time. I’m also the dean of students, and the person who is helping me is a teacher in a classroom. My hands are full.”

With few exceptions, service learning coaches also hold down full-time jobs as counselors, social workers, teachers or other school staffers. The board’s own service learning task force recommended that the coach be a full-time position, according to several members. It was told, however, that the board couldn’t afford that. Instead, the board allotted each high school $1,000 to $4,000, depending on its enrollment, for coach stipends.

“In our first year, we wanted to start out small and assess needs as we went along,” says Carlos Azcoitia, deputy chief education officer. “And we looked at other places like Baltimore, and their coaches were only getting around $700. We’re doing better than that.”

One high school, Best Practice, is using its own discretionary money to support a full-time coach. However, project-based learning is at the core of this 3-year-old “small school.” (See Catalyst, March 1999.)

“The [service] program was integrated into the curriculum, and the entire staff had input,” says Sylvia Gibson, principal of the three small schools housed at the Cregier Multiplex on the Near West Side. “Everybody, the whole staff decided how it was going to go.”

Best Practice also is one of the city’s smaller high schools. Next school year, it anticipates enrolling just 470 students in grades 9 through 12.

In contrast, Lane Technical High School has over 4,000 students. “Lane Tech has only one service learning coach. Me,” notes Ofelia Cabrera, an academic resource teacher. “How can we carry this program out?”

In a study of service learning at 20 high schools, the Chicago Panel on School Policy found that the ratio of freshmen and sophomores to coaches is 852 to 1.

“We have about 2,100 students,” says Eileen Ortiz, the service learning coach and freshman counselor at Farragut High. “In two years, when all four classes are doing this, it will be a huge task to manage. … Some of the coaches have said, ‘In a couple of years, this will be too much for us.'”

One coach, who asked not to be identified, says central administration’s response has been, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Azcoitia acknowledges that especially large schools will probably need more than one coach. “We are assessing that now,” he says. “In some cases, maybe some schools will need two or three coaches. We’ll see.”

While time is coaches’ immediate problem, it may not be their largest.

“Some schools are telling us they have other issues to deal with and that service learning integration is low on the list,” reports Barbara Buell, executive director of the Chicago Panel. “Teachers say they don’t have time to do this.”

The majority of the coaches in the Panel’s 20-school study agreed that getting teachers involved was difficult. In interviews with coaches or administrators at 35 schools, Catalyst found only 10 who said community service is being integrated into the curriculum.

Most said teachers feel overwhelmed by other board mandates.

“We’ve got new mandated tests to work on, like the CASE,” notes Grafton Brown, the service learning coach and the chair of the foreign language department at Collins High. “In May, our kids have to take the TAP. We’re also working with DePaul University to get off probation. We’re overwhelmed with tests. Integrating service learning into the curriculum, that’s a catch as catch can. It’s not happening here.”

Even one school that the board touted in a recent press release acknowledges a lack of classroom ties.

In February, the board praised Senn High School for lining up the American Red Cross to train students in disaster relief, including first aide and CPR, and then having them make presentations to community groups. Sara Levin, a social worker who serves as Senn’s service learning coach, says the project is not connected to any academic courses.

“Teachers are overwhelmed, and it’s hard to get them involved in doing something else,” she explains. “So that’s my next big challenge in terms of integrating what the kids do into the curriculum. I can’t make teachers do this. I think one of our more energetic teachers will have to be the starting point.”

Luke Frazier, executive director of Maryland Student Service Alliance, says Chicago is not alone in this challenge. “I see a lot of places, even in our state, falling into doing community service instead of service learning,” he says. “To make the distinction takes time and resources.”

Not all projects have obvious connections to the classroom, he notes. In some cases, he says, “It takes a will to find strong links between the two.”

Charlotte Anderson, executive director of Education for Global Involvement and a member of the Chicago board’s service learning task force, believes it takes teacher training, too.

“Teachers need to be shown how to do this if they are to be effective,” she says. “Traditionally, teachers are not linked to the community, so the two have to be introduced to each other. In addition, they need access and time to learn how to incorporate this new way of learning into the classroom. This is the district’s responsibility. If they are really talking about service learning, then they need to provide support to teachers.”

Anderson is working with Bowen and Sullivan high schools to show how community projects tie into global issues.

An administrator at a local private school that has been doing service learning for 18 years also says training is key. “My advise to Chicago Public Schools is that some kind of training be held for all teachers to get them involved,” says Maryanne Kalin-Miller, community service administrator for the middle grades at Frances Parker School in Lincoln Park. “It should be centrally coordinated, but be flexible enough to allow for differences in individual schools. Teachers have to believe this is important. They have to be on board with this for this to be done successfully.”

“Teachers that I’ve talked to have a lot of questions,” says RaeLynne Toperoff, executive director of the Teachers’ Task Force. “They were not asked about integrating this into the curriculum. They were not asked what barriers they saw or what resources teachers needed. I think the idea of service learning is a wonderful one, and has the potential for good opportunities, but teachers did not have input.”

Twelve of the 45 members of the board’s service learning task force were teachers or local school administrators, but some feel their voices were not heard.

“We kept asking, ‘Who is going to do all this?'” recalls one of the school-based members. “What’s the process in the schools—which I think went unanswered. Our suggestions were not used, so I think what you’ll find in schools is a whole lot of community service as opposed to service learning.”

The main suggestion was naming a full-time coach to work with teachers.

To some task force members, another troubling aspect of the program is that many coaches were drafted by their principals rather than volunteered. “We wanted to know, “Where was the buy-in?,” says one member. “When we were first told how the service learning coaches were chosen, we foresaw this as a problem.” The reigning thought was that coaches should volunteer.

Azcoitia say the board appreciates that schools are being asked to do a lot. “I know people feel overwhelmed. I feel overwhelmed,” he laughs. “I just don’t know what the answer is to all this. We are in an information age, and it’s been like this for awhile. I guess we have to get better organized to do the things we need to do.”

He agrees that teacher training is essential, adding that it also is the most difficult part of putting together a service learning program.

“We have told the coaches, ‘You are not in this alone,'” he says. “We have received invitations from schools to talk to their teachers, and will continue to do so. We know this is hard if teachers are not used to using project-based [teaching] strategies.This is only our first year.”

In schools, it also rankles that neither the board’s promised curriculum nor computer system for keeping track of student service hours is in place.

“At the moment, we are going about this backwards,” says Margarita Aponte, a guidance counselor and service learning coach at Kelvyn Park High. “We have agencies coming to us to work with our students, but they are the ones having our kids do research and such. … I plan on working with teachers when I get the curriculum.”

“The concept of community service is a good one, but they [the board] are implementing a program without all the systems in place,” says another coach, who asked not to be identified. “I’ve had to keep track of information on my own computer at home.”

Azcoitia says the board wanted the curriculum to be written by teachers who have been doing service learning on their own, but that it didn’t know who those teachers were until the program was up and running and those teachers stepped forward.

Nine teachers are writing curricula for general areas of study, such as math and English, as well as for special education students. The curriculum, which will be ready in May, will be pegged to both state and city academic standards.

“As for the computerized system,” says Azcoitia. “We have to take our time. We want it to be on the student’s transcript, but in a simple way. This takes time to do.”

The board has budgeted about $536,000 for service learning this school year, $286,000 in general operating funds and $250,000 from a state Learn and Serve grant. The general funds are being used for stipends for service learning coaches. The bulk of the state grant, $150,000, is being distributed to schools that apply for mini-grants of up to $3,000 each. The rest of the state grant is going to curriculum development and program evaluation.

Azcoitia says he does not yet see a need to increase the budget for next year. “Before we hand out resources, we have to see if there is an established need. For instance, not all schools have applied for the grants this year. We have about 40 something schools that have. I just sent out a letter to the others letting them know money was still available.”

“Nothing is perfect,” he adds. “But we’ve been changing as we go along. We’re listening to what people have to say, and I think we are building a quality-based program.”