Board Approves New Service Learning Graduation Requirement

A proposal to add a service learning graduation requirement for 26,000 high school students in California's third-largest school district this week was unanimously approved by the Board of Education. It will link classroom instruction with the real-world work of community service. Starting with the class of 2007, all students must complete 40 hours of service learning in order to qualify for a high school diploma. An estimated 60 percent of local high school students already contribute at least this much community service. Other major school districts from Chico to Chicago have successful service learning requirements. Some private and parochial schools have required students to contribute community service for years. "It gives graduates a competitive edge," said Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser. "Universities and employers value these experiences, and most students find them motivating and rewarding." Service learning allows students to apply what they're learning in selected core courses. Service learning would involve school clubs and campus activities and dozens of community and nonprofit organizations, as well as some of the 900 educational partners of local schools. Students could design their own projects outside of class or school within guidelines established by the district and high schools which connect the service they provide with classes they are taking. The goal is to help students see the value of what they are learning. To avoid any hardship on a student or family, special accommodations would be made to allow all students to complete the service learning requirement for graduation. Jennifer Gutierrez, Wilson High School's Most Inspiring Student Award winner this year, provides a striking example of service learning despite personal challenges. Her hard work and courage have opened many doors. She is a 3.70 GPA honor student, aspiring to be a psychiatrist. She recently was accepted for admission to UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Riverside. She is also awaiting acceptances from USC, Stanford and La Verne. She will be the first member of her family to go to college. In addition to helping her single mother care for her autistic older brother, she devotes several hours per week to service learning activities. Her father was recently released after serving several years in prison. Jennifer volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, translating materials for deserving low-income applicants for housing. She encouraged her family to apply for one of the volunteer-built homes. Because of her efforts, which will include hundreds of hours helping to build their house, they hope to move into their own Habitat-built home early next year. Jennifer is a member of Wilson's Zygomas Club, a senior women's service group whose members include the 25 most involved and on-track students at the school. She participates in Best Buddies at Wilson, frequently spending time in activities assisting, befriending and encouraging special education students on campus. As a volunteer for the National Honor Society, she visits patients in local convalescent hospitals and participates in beach cleanups. As a member of Wilson's Ballet Folklorico Club, she regularly performs for community and church groups. "My participation in school and community activities has contributed to my personal strength and maturity," she said. "I've met many people from whom I've learned a lot." Local support for the service learning requirement is strong. Service learning was a key recommendation made by the Character Education Task Force to promote character education. The PTA and parent councils have indicated their support. Many high school teachers currently incorporate service learning into the curriculum, and all high schools have service-oriented clubs on campus and have seen the benefits from students who participate. During the Principal for a Day debriefing this year, service learning activities were recommended by members of the Chamber of Commerce as a way to strengthen school and community collaboration and support. Studies show that students who participate in community service earn better grades and show more interest in school than those who don't. They're also more likely • not to take dangerous risks, such as doing drugs, • to have higher self-esteem, be more responsible and feel more connected to the community, • to have stronger social skills, • to stay in school, • to have regular attendance and perform well. Service learning improves students' achievement, thinking skills, character and behavior. It strengthens community organizations and increases support for schools.