Sunday, April 20, 2014

Service Learning Gets a Boost

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

When students volunteer in their communities, they’re not just exercising their hearts. They’re almost certainly making the kinds of connections that will engage their minds in school as well.

That’s why a new $550,000, two-year grant from the federal government to the NEA Foundation, which will pay to train teachers about service learning, has so much potential for dropout prevention and student engagement. “This is not service-learning for service-learning sake,” said Nelda Brown, executive director of the National Service-Learning Partnership, earlier this year. “We want to show young people the power of taking what they learn in the classroom and using it to tackle a problem in their community.”

The grant, which will be administered by the NEA Public Engagement Project (PEP), will pay to train about 100 Columbus, OH, teachers, mostly from low-income, priority schools, through classes at Ohio State University. Already the Project has been working with educators, and community members at Linden-McKinley STEM Academy to transform the once-failing school into a science and math powerhouse. Now, this new service-learning component will be another way to engage kids and close the achievement gaps.

Putnam City West High students landscape their school.

Educators know it will work — because it already has. At Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, for example, students are clamoring to get into a service-learning class run by teacher Jennifer Pasillas. Every week, they climb aboard a white van, driven by Pasillas, to volunteer at a local food pantry, infant crisis center, zoo, parks, and other schools. Her students, who are almost all Hispanic and many in danger of dropping out, say they feel like they’re part of something a little bigger than themselves.

“I’ve had a few kids who I think would have dropped out if they hadn’t been in the class,” Pasillas said. “They build such good relationships. And it really builds their self-esteem. They get to be in the spotlight in a really positive way.”

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