Volunteering is part of the lesson plan at many schools across the country. As kids reach out to their communities, they also do better academically. Study up on how you can help your child make the grade.

By John Hanc

Higher Learning

Here's something you don't hear about too often: a positive trend in our educational system. Unlike recent initiatives (No Child Left Behind, for example), service-learning-linking community outreach of some kind to an educational objective-is being promoted, embraced and lauded. And as a result its popularity is growing: In 1984 only 2% of all schools had such programs; currently one-third of all schools now offer them.

One reason for the expansion of these programs is government support. In 1992 the federally funded Learn and Serve America launched its first round of awards to state education agencies, colleges and universities. It now doles out more than $37 million in grants annually. But perhaps even more important is a new perspective among educators and policy makers alike. "There has been a fundamental change in the way we view young people in this country. Instead of seeing them as liabilities, or problems to be solved, we're viewing them as assets and resources," says Steve Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, in Washington, D.C. "The old idea that youth are to be seen and not heard is being thrown out. Youth are being seen and heard, and are participating."

And the results have been impressive. In 1999 the National Research Council identified service learning as one of the most effective ways to engage students, and it's now considered an essential tool in preventing kids from dropping out. It has also been found to have a positive academic impact, particularly in social studies, writing and English. Though educators point out that service-learning is not a replacement for more traditional forms of learning, it is an enhancement-and, from the kids' perspective, an energizer. "This is the way we can tap into every student's skills and talents and put them into action," says Cathryn Berger Kaye, author of The Complete Guide to Service Learning (Free Spirit Publishing). And while the programs help create better learners, they also may be creating better citizens. A 2007 report from Learn and Serve found that students involved in service learning have an increased sense of personal and social responsibility.

Effective Projects

The most effective projects are ones that students themselves help define, that promote interaction and communication within their community and that encourage critical thinking. In general, service-learning curriculums encompass several stages, including preparation (where students acquire new information as they read, research and observe, to get a better understanding of the community); action (based on an analysis of their research findings); and reflection (students consider the impact of their actions on themselves and the community). When a program successfully combines the satisfaction of service with the joy of learning, the results are truly magical. "The kids are involved and engaged in an educational process that now seems to matter," says Berger Kaye. "It changes 'I have to go to school' to 'I want to go to school.'"

Here are four innovative and successful programs-plus ideas on how to bring the benefits of service-learning to your own child's school.

The League


  • Who's participating: 741 schools in 41 states, representing 4,282 classes and 254,840 students grades K-12
  • How they do it: The League's goal is to inspire students to take action. "We want to get all kids involved in volunteerism and community service, in any way they choose and any cause that sparks their interest," says Doreen Stephens, vice president of programming and marketing at the Newark, New Jersey, not-for-profit. Since most kids are familiar with organized sports, they decided to use the framework of a sports league. Teachers are coaches, students are players and the class itself becomes a team. A score is kept, based on how many dollars or donated items are collected by the team or how much time is spent on the project. Teams can check their progress on the website's scoreboard to see how their efforts compare with those in other schools.
  • A lesson in giving: With her husband, Jason, a Navy lieutenant stationed in Iraq, and many other local parents in the service, it seemed natural for Julie Flinkman, a teacher and League coach at Barth Elementary School in Romulus, Michigan, to steer her first-graders toward a project involving the military. "It was originally going to be my class collecting cookies and candies to send over to soldiers in Iraq," says Julie. "But the news spread, and it turned into this gigantic project." While her class learned about the geography of the Middle East, the role of our military and the war in Iraq, the donations poured in. By the end of last November, 300 goodie bags and cards created by her students were shipped to bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. The "Treats for Troops" project rocketed the group into first place in the League standings for Michigan first grade classes. But the response from the recipients of their service was even more gratifying. During his leave Lieutenant Flinkman visited the class and presented the kids with a flag that had flown over his base in Fallujah. Another Navy officer in Baghdad wrote the children: "Sending us these gifts is something we will remember for the rest of our lives."

Giraffe Heroes Project


  • Who's participating: Approximately 30,000 students, grades K-12
  • How they do it: Teams of students identify an issue in their community or another country and create a solution. In the process they learn how to research, collect data and communicate more effectively, both in writing and orally. Prior to getting involved with the Giraffe Heroes Project-the name refers to people who stick their necks out for good causes-62% of kids surveyed thought they might be able to do something about community problems. After completing their projects, the figure was 90%.
  • A lesson in giving: Mary Lou DeCaprio volunteers at Wildwood Elementary School in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, where she helps coordinate six teams of 25 children each in an after-school Giraffe Project. (She also trains new leaders with Giraffe teaching materials.) Her daughter Ana Elisa, 13, participates in a Giraffe program in her middle school. After reading and sharing stories about national and local Giraffes, one of DeCaprio's fifth grade groups decided to do a project involving homeless animals. They had heard about 11th Hour Rescue, in Rockaway, New Jersey, which saves dogs and cats about to be euthanized, and decided to raise money for the organization by encouraging their peers to put aside snack money each day. Specially designed bags were created for collecting donations. "They raised over $1,000!" DeCaprio says. "I was blown away that snack money could add up to that much!" At the team's final presentation to the school, they talked about 11th Hour, what the group does and how the class had set up their fundraising efforts. Then they handed the check to the president of 11th Hour Rescue. One teacher in attendance was so moved she ended up adopting a dog from the group.

Earth Force


  • Who's participating: 18,000 young people in 17 states, grades 4-12
  • How they do it: Kids change the world one carbon footprint at a time by studying and addressing their community's environmental issues. Earth Force's approach involves six steps: Assess the situation, select a problem, examine the human role (both positive and negative), decide on a solution, implement an action plan and evaluate the results. Throughout the semester students study the scientific economic and political backgrounds of various environmental issues while refining their reading, writing and speaking skills.
  • A lesson in giving: When Kathy Molina's sixth grade science students in Arlington, Virginia, went to analyze a local stream as their project, they were horrified to find it was littered with discarded computers, monitors and TVs. The reason: Their community had limited recycling programs for electronics. The solution they came up with was to make it easier to properly dispose of the items by arranging curbside pickup. With Molina's encouragement and guidance, the students, following the Earth Force six steps, surveyed 100 parents of children at H-B Woodlawn school (grades 6-12) and confirmed that there was an interest in a curbside pickup program for electronics. They then recruited parents, high school students and others to do the job as volunteers. After presenting their proposal to the county board-which approved it-"We'll Bring It to You" was held on March 24, 2007. A total of 200 items, including computers and cell phones, was collected. Since then the students have won the President's Environmental Youth Award. They've also made a lasting impact: Arlington County recently instituted a permanent curbside electronics recycling program that residents can choose to participate in for a small fee. "These kids feel so empowered, like they can change the world," Molina says. "And in their community, they truly have."

America Scores


  • Who's participating: More than 5,000 city kids, ages 8-12, in 15 cities
  • How they do it: America Scores' multiprong program combines soccer, poetry and service learning to inspire and educate. Through soccer the kids learn to work as a team and also get a physical workout. (A secondary goal of the program is to combat the increasing problem of obesity.) In the classroom students compose and study poems in order to promote self-expression, build vocabulary, improve their written and oral communication skills, and find their own voices. The kids then work together to develop a service program for their community. "It's taking the teamwork they learn on the field and the self-expression they learn in the poetry classroom and putting both of them into action," says organization spokeswoman Suzanne Taylor. The ultimate goal, she adds, is to teach the kids how to "give, share and care."
  • A lesson in giving: Robyn Pollard, now 13, joined the America Scores program in her hometown of Cleveland as a fifth-grader. Over the next few years she became a star player on the soccer field and a leader of her team's community service projects (one recent effort was collecting clothing for an orphanage in Africa). Above all she came to realize the power of her actions. "I learned how to be a better writer, says Robyn. "Even more important, I learned how to follow my own voice."

What You Can Do

Sometimes even volunteering can be viewed by kids as just one more thing they're being told to do. "There is a risk when adults force community spirit on the kids," says Patty Toombs, a former elementary- and middle-school principal who is now education director for the Giraffe Heroes Project. The best way to approach the topic is with gently persuasive encouragement, she says.

Start the conversation out like this: "So you've got a community service project. Great! What do you care about? What issues matter to you?" Once you've helped your child find a cause, look into organizations he can turn to for help. Toombs suggests having him write up a two- or three-sentence description that he can show to his team or teacher. The parent's role, she says, "should be providing a very light hand in the process."

Some other ways to get involved:

  • Talk to your child's teachers or administrators and let them know you'd like to help with service projects.
  • Explore some of the options for service learning projects by visiting the Parent's Resource page (under the "Instant Info" section) of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse (service learning.org).
  • Remember that service learning doesn't happen only in the schools. Learn and Serve-part of the federally financed Corporation for National and Community Service-encourages parents to check out local community and faith-based organizations for programs children can take part in. (For a copy of Learn and Serve's "Bring Learning to Life" brochure and video, call 866-245-7378.)
  • Take an active role yourself. "Young people learn by watching what the influential adults in their lives do," says Earth Force President Vince Meldrum. "If their parents are passionate about community service, it is much more likely that young people will carry on that tradition."

Resources for Change

  • Edutopia.org is the website of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Its goal is to spread the word about innovative, interactive learning environments and enable others to adapt them. It has a vast archive of success stories from schools, and offers everything from classroom tips to recommendations for district-wide reform.
  • Learningtogive.org offers free of charge more than 1,200 K-12 lessons and educational resources to teachers, parents, youth workers and community leaders. Students learn about volunteering, being responsible and showing leadership in the classroom-and how to be leaders in the community.
  • Servicevote.org is Youth Service America's campaign to engage young people in the political process, beginning with voting. At this interactive site kids can log on to the "My Two Cents for Change" feature and share ideas about how to engage candidates during the election-and afterward.
  • Voicesforservice.org is part of the AmeriCorps program, which offers thousands of opportunities to serve through a network of partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups that are fighting illiteracy, building affordable housing, cleaning parks and streams, and more.
  • Whatkidscando.org features inspiring stories from around the world about community service projects, including "Straight Talk," first-person accounts by young volunteers about their experiences. Its "Kids on the Wire" service, which features news clippings on teen volunteer programs, is updated daily.

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.