Study critiques service learning’s first year

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Last year, the School Board got most high schools to involve 50 to 100 students in service learning, thus meeting its first-year goal. However, this year and hereafter, schools will have to get three times as many students doing twice the number of hours to ensure that all students complete the 40 hours required to graduate.

Further, while the initiative has sparked several high-quality connections between schools and the community, many more are needed if students are to become committed to community service.

These are the major findings of a study commissioned by the board to examine its first steps toward implementing the new requirement, which the board adopted in spring 1998 and goes into effect with the class of 2001, this year’s juniors.

The study warns that without taking action, the board runs the risk of seeing kids not graduate or being turned off to community service because of bad experiences.

The study was done by Joseph Kahne, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is now teaching at Mills College in Oakland, Cal. Kahne conducted interviews and observed at 10 schools; he also surveyed all service learning coaches and 268 students who participated in the board’s trial run.

“The system should be commended for having an outside evaluation done. That was risky,” says Kahne. “What they have done has been more of a success than what I initially thought. They have made a good first step towards what they want to do. However, it will be more difficult for them later. This first group of kids that volunteered are most likely to have volunteered anyway. Later they will have to work with more difficult kids who are not likely to want to do this.”

For example, last year, 7,300 students put in an average of 20 hours each, he found. However, some 24,000 students, or a fourth of high school enrollment, need to complete 40 hours each year to ensure all students meet the requirement, he says.

The study found that the quality of schools’ programs was mixed and that service learning coaches—regular teachers and administrators who got stipends to put in extra hours—were generally supportive of the initiative. Their two biggest challenges, the study found, were finding time to put programs together and supervise them, and getting other teachers involved. These findings mirror an earlier Catalyst report on the program. (See Catalyst, April 1999.)

The study recommends:

Finding ways to support the hiring of additional staff or to free up coaches. Students at schools where service learning coaches were released from a class or division averaged 3,662 hours per school. Students at schools were coaches did not receive a reduced work load averaged 1,561 hours per school.

Experimenting with models that integrate service learning experiences into the general curriculum, and making a greater investment in professional development and curriculum development. The study’s statistical analysis indicated that projects that dealt with social problems, their causes and possible solutions and that were connected to the classroom curriculum generated greater student interest and knowledge of the stated academic and vocational goals.

Communicating to central office administrators, principals and teachers that the stakes are high: If more is not done to get more students involved and to mount more high-quality programs, students may not graduate and likely will not become lifelong volunteers.

Says Grace Troccolo, who manages the service learning program, “We are pleased to see that a lot of recommendations made were ones we have been working on before the evaluation came out.”

For example:

Last year, funding allocated for coaches’ stipends was $187,000; this year it was increased to $340,000. Most schools now have two coaches and in some cases three to share this responsibility.

Service learning curricula will start making their way into schools in November. The first curriculum released will be for social studies. Each month, another curriculum, such as math, reading, language arts, will debut.

Says Troccolo, “Teachers wrote 200 service pieces into current units of study. They are recipes. They include preparation, service, reflection and recognition and meet the state and district’s standards.”

The board again applied for a Learn and Serve grant, which will be used to do inservice workshops and develop lane credit courses for about 200 teachers. Last year, individual schools were able to apply for small grants to get programs up and running; this year teachers, may apply individually, in pairs or in small groups. So far, the board has received about 75 applications for the grants.

Troccolo and others have been studying successful models already in place in Chicago public schools and are working on ways to incorporate them into other schools. In addition, to getting the word out, she says she has been visiting schools and talking to entire faculties about the initiative.