service as a path to educational success

(San Francisco) I gave a presentation and moderated a session at the National Conference on Volunteering & Service yesterday. The topic was equity. But I’d rather describe a different panel, one that I attended as a member of the audience. The topic was service as a key to enhance student achievement. Angela Glover Blackwell was the moderator, and she started with an eloquent statement in favor of tapping students’ energies to address social problems and thereby give them skills and motivations for learning. She said that all the excellent social programs she knows include a dimension of civic engagement, because programs work best when people “own” them. She cited Harlem Children’s Zone as a model and referred to a new federal program, Promise Neighborhoods, that intends to replicate that model. Unfortunately, James Shelton III from the US Department of Education had to miss the panel at the last moment and so could not address that initiative.

Lisa Spinali, a friend of mine, talked about a large program that matches volunteers to schools in San Francisco (it is called San Francisco Volunteers, and she’s the executive director). There has been a gradual shift from placing anyone with an interest in a school to identifying real needs and finding the right skills. Early on, San Franciscans might offer to teach macrame and guitar and would be sent to a classroom. Today, a corps of bilingual volunteers translates at parent/teacher conferences.

Anthony Salcito works for Microsoft. He used the formula that I associate with the Gates Foundation: rigor, relevance, and relationships. These “three-r’s” are too often lacking in our schools. Salcito took the line that “service-learning” (combinations of academic study with community service) would help with rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Eric Schwartz from Citizen Schools made the case that the school day and school year are too short; there should be more learning opportunities for all kids during an expanded learning day. Citizen Schools creates a “second shift” of learning, with lots of interactive and fun projects. Volunteering comes into play in two ways. The “second shift” is substantially provided by unpaid volunteer adults and by AmeriCorps members. And the kids do, among many other activities, some service-learning.

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