The Future of Service Learning at Elite Private Elementary Schools in America

As a veteran educator with fifteen years of teaching and instructional leadership experience,  I am well aware that educational trends come and go. In the world of independent education, “Project-Based Learning”, “Design Thinking” and  “experiential learning” have been widely discussed. In the last few years, Service Learning has earned its place among these methodologies.

The Educators Consortium for Service Learning defines this learning approach as, “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” This definition coincides with what most independent schools share on their websites. These websites generally include statements that reflect a belief in character education and creation of a climate where leadership and civic participation is fostered. For example,  one school describes its desire to cultivate, “responsible leaders and citizens”. Another mentions the goal to, “inspire personal excellence and compassionate leadership.” Others share a“commitment to humanity,” and commitment to inspiring their students to, “lead lives of purpose.”

Notwithstanding the lofty goals reflected on independent school websites, school faculty and administrations are likely to confuse Service Learning, an integrated curricular approach, with Community Service, a one day event. While Community Service days are a staple in many school programs, they shouldn’t be considered a replacement for Service Learning.

Service Learning, its necessary components, and its benefits, are  best described by Cathryn Berger Kaye, an educational consultant, in her book, The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Kaye notes that Service Learning is the perfect approach for schools seeking to create future leaders as described in their mission statements. “A well-designed service learning experience affords ample opportunities for students to consider their own ideas and those of others, think critically about what occurs, anticipate possible outcomes, adjust plans, articulate their intentions in both written and verbal forms, and assess the outcomes of their endeavors-all essential leadership skills.”  (2010) Research conducted by supports Kaye’s assertion, listing several important benefits:

  • Improvement of character values and responsible behavior
  • Improvement of academic outcomes, including reflection skills, engagement in learning, and even test scores

  • Promotion of the development of social-emotional skills

  • Promotion of commitment to  a lifetime of civic participation

Service Learning not only impacts students positively, but teachers, schools, and families as well. When teachers make education and learning more experiential and relevant for their students, they, “ often see students blossom and develop previously untapped strengths in the process.” (2010)  For any dedicated teacher, this is the largest, and most rewarding dividend possible. Furthermore, as teachers collaborate with their colleagues and community partners to develop new curriculum that is exciting and impactful, teachers become re-energized in their professional endeavors. Kaye asserts,“School administrators may observe a boost in staff and student morale as desired outcomes are achieved...and the school’s profile is raised in the community.” And finally, adopting Service Learning curriculum invites additional opportunities for partnership with the school’s families, providing them with, “ new avenues for conversation with their children...and create family service experiences.”

Despite the obvious benefits of developing a genuine, full-fledged Service Learning curriculum, independent schools can find it difficult to successfully launch this type of program.  As the Humanities Instructional Leader at an independent school, I encountered multiple roadblocks in the implementation of such a program. My experience has been instructive and suggests  a few possible reasons:

  • Independent school administrations have a lack of understanding of what Service Learning is. They believe that the pre-existing community service programs and clubs they offer constitute Service Learning.
  • Service learning requires a large shift in how teachers think about teaching. It is a movement from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction as quality service-learning requires a great deal of student voice and decision making. This shift is one that veteran teachers find overwhelming and near impossible. Without proper professional development, training for faculty, and a clear mandate from administrative and leadership teams, this hesitancy cannot be overcome.

  • Social Justice issues are uncomfortable topics for educators. There is an inherent desire on the part of teachers, especially teachers of younger students, to shield their students from what is happening in the real world. I think this is a huge mistake. Considering recent events that have unfolded in our country and around the world, it is clear that it is the future generations that have the power to create change.

As I write this piece, I am moved to tears watching footage of the teenage speakers at yesterday’s “March For Our Lives”. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post in her Opinion piece, “They Came, They Marched, They Inspired,” notes that adults in the crowd as well as adults watching from home were in absolute awe that students could organize and execute such a powerful statement and movement to change gun laws that politicians have been arguing about for decades. These are the types of children we want to be leading our country. If our independent schools are not actively and purposefully engaging in high quality Service Learning, they are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to do so.