The value of service learning

I’m a big proponent of students making community service an active part of their education. In our school, we call it service learning. Students at my school, through various student groups and organizations, regularly have several required hours of community service throughout the year. We do this not only because service helps in college and scholarship applications and when students consider trades or vocational training colleges, but also because service gives students unique life experiences likely to affect choices they make now. These choices will affect the rest of their lives. I am concerned, however, that community service is neither required nor encouraged in every school and that we aren’t fully realizing the benefit of service.

Service is more than putting in hours. At our school, we require students to write down what they thought about their efforts. We want them to reflect on their time investment. It’s an essential connection between their life and their community, and it develops empathy. Teachers can teach about society and its needs, but until a young person steps into a shelter or helps a disabled teen with a softball game, they do not fully grasp both their potential to effect change and the ways their lives influence others. Learning happens not only in the classroom, but also beyond.

As hard as teaching about society is, it is equally difficult to quantify the value of these students’ service experiences. As educators, parents and advisors, our instincts tell us that a student who has stepped out of the classroom to see the world at work -- and sometimes the world in need -- is better prepared to make decisions about his or her future. College admissions officers recognize the value of these interactions, too. In some ways, admissions is a murky science, but colleges do consider community service, internships and other activities when determining a student’s fit for their campus.

There has been a breakthrough this year concerning non-academic skills like community service. For the first time ever, there is a standardized service report that students can submit for college and scholarship applications. This report is called an Official Service Transcript, and it is delivered much like a GPA, SAT and ACT information. It is a verified record of the time a student has given in community service. It also includes a summary of the student’s reflections. I’m thrilled to see this type of report become a reality. For many years, my students had to track their service hours in a spreadsheet. Our school verified hours on paper, which students would lose, crumple in their backpacks, or simply forget about when their service was finished. We now use an electronic system from x2VOL to track all of this data, which was a giant leap forward. And as of 2018, our students can order an Official Service Transcript to tie their service together in one neat, verifiable package.

I have seen how service can drive a student’s passion in ways that classroom learning rarely achieves. These students who follow their passion have demonstrated extra commitment to their schooling, and that will clearly drive the direction they take in pursuing a college or career.

Jill Stafford is the principal of Lowery Freshman Center in Allen Texas. She has been a Texas school principal for 15 years and was a classroom teacher for 11 years.

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