Schools teach the skills of respect and reach out to their communities in unique ways. Recently, two programs designed by schools to promote caring for others were awarded grants for their impact on both school and community. While students at a Connecticut elementary school learn the "ropes" of respect, middle schoolers in California are making community service part of the curriculum. Included: Tips to help you start a community service course at your school.
"Prior to the ROPES program, character education and social-emotional learning was present in small pockets within our school," explained school psychologist June Gold. "There was a need, however, for a more integrated and unified program to promote core values across every grade level. As a result, a committee comprised of teachers and administrators was formed and charged with addressing this need. During the summer of 2003, the framework of the ROPES program was developed."
Riverside School in Riverside, Connecticut, set out to improve its social-emotional climate and teach its students skills that encourage "Respect for Oneself, Property, Each other, and School," the ROPES program's acronym. At the start of the program, the students were introduced to the vocabulary of this acronym and learned how to incorporate these values into their school day.
"UNTYING" THE KNOT
"Once a ROPES value was consistently displayed by a class, students were recognized as having untied a knot," said Ronnie Polansky, a physical education teacher at Riverside. "That was done literally on a classroom display board, and the class's accomplishment was announced over the public address system. Classes were also recognized with a special certificate to commemorate the untying of all of the knots."
Teachers addressed the ROPES program in ways appropriate to the age and ability of their classes. Individual classrooms had distinct and unique activities and projects that ranged from reading literature, writing poetry and narratives, engaging in class meetings, and performing skits. Some upper classes chose to do activities around the theme of respect with class "buddies" in the lower grades. Many expressed ROPES themes on bulletin boards and posters throughout the school.
"Within our music program, every student was taught the words of the song Don't Laugh at Me, the theme song created by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary for the Operation Respect character education program," Polansky reported. "During one of our school-wide assemblies devoted to the theme of respect, fifth graders jumped rope to the rhythmic sounds of Arethra Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C-T. They also demonstrated cooperation by untying a human knot."
The children enthusiastically wrote numerous essays and poems and created posters and other art work to illustrate their commitment to the program. Speech and language pathologist Ann Friedman observed acts of kindness demonstrated regularly by students throughout the year. An ongoing program, ROPES is an integral part of Riverside School, and new facets continue to be developed.
"Most memorable is the respect demonstrated by students and staff to a severely disabled child in our school," stated Friedman. "The attention, consideration, and genuine interest shown to this child make her an integral member of our school family. Her responsive smile exemplifies the core values of the program."
MAKING AN IMPACT
Its unique approach to teaching character education earned Riverside School the 2003-04 A+ School Impact Award, one of two $500 awards from School Mate that are given to schools that have implemented programs with a positive impact on the school or its community. The A+ School Impact Award and the A+ Community Impact Award recognize projects that include efforts to solve a problem, encourage learning, or help the community. Applications are evaluated based on the nature of the project, who was involved in the planning and execution, and how it has benefited the school or community.
"It's amazing to see how active classrooms, organizations, and entire schools are in their efforts to improve their school or community," Shari Hofmann of School Mate told Education World. "Their goals and the benefits received from carrying out their projects are admirable."
The winner of the 2003-04 A+ Community Impact Award, Oakwood Country School in Morgan Hill, California, has made community service a top priority. Students become activists through an elective course that has them join in more than 50 voluntary service projects and a long-term project for the term. Lynda Bassett, a music and art teacher at the middle school, has conducted the course for seven years.
"We are a private school and many, not all, but many of the families are fairly affluent," explained Bassett. "Having five children of my own -- four of them teenagers, I feel that one thing this generation lacks is empathy for others. This generation has not had to go through a depression, hard times, a world war, or anything collectively to give them a different perspective on life, other than that to which they were born. In setting up this course, I felt that service to others was a way to help combat the trend of selfishness and self-centeredness that abounds today."
Oakwood operates on a trimester schedule, and each student chooses two electives per trimester. The community service class accepts 12 middle school students per session, and enrollment is kept low because the course includes many field trips that require additional supervision and transportation. This class meets four times per week during the last period of the day.
"Each trimester begins with the students identifying what they believe the class should be," said Bassett. "We talk about service, about volunteers, about the contributions they make. We talk about our community volunteers and the impact they make. Each student begins working on a report about a volunteer of their choice. Interviews with volunteers are encouraged, and volunteers are brought in to speak."
The goal of the class is to complete 50 service projects along with a major project for the trimester, and every group thus far has managed to accomplish that task. One class collected 17 bins of sheets, towels, bedspreads, and blankets for a local shelter as its major project, and another "adopted" 12 families and provided wrapped Christmas presents. It was the community service class that led the school's involvement in the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life"; students prepared the grounds, directed traffic, set up tents, and cleaned up. The students in the class made it possible for the school's teams to raise $10,000 for the worthy cause.
In addition to the major project of the trimester, 50 smaller ones are also completed. The class sends letters to all non-profit organizations and churches with offers to help. Every Tuesday, the students leave campus for a "hands-on" service project such as playing bingo with the residents at a local rest home, painting bathrooms at the local YMCA, sorting books for the local library, painting over graffiti, picking up trash along a creek, planting or weeding a garden for a local organization, reading to or providing a party for the children at a local shelter, decorating the community center's Christmas tree, sorting food for the Second Harvest Food Bank, putting together toiletry kits for a homeless shelter, or decorating the bulletin boards in patient rooms at the local hospital.
"The days that we are in class, we are also working for others," Bassett stated. "The local Boy Scouts will call and ask us to put together their mailers. The Chamber of Commerce will call and ask us to put together new resident packets. The library has us cut out the summer reading program materials. The YMCA has us help prepare art projects for their annual children's art day. We make lap quilts for the senior citizens, knit caps for infants, and make little craft presents to be delivered at Mother's Day."
The class also helps out the school community by laminating teacher's materials, making alphabet books for kindergartners, and reading to second-grade pals. The students set up chairs for major events in the gym, pick up trash all over campus, paint fences, water plants, and make sure the message on the school's marquee is up-to-date each week.
A LASTING COMMITMENT
"Almost all of the students leave this course with a greater sense of caring and empathy for others," Bassett observed. "I know this because of the requests made at the end of the trimester. Different things touch different kids. Many love going to play with the homeless children best. Some like making dog biscuits, cat toys, folding newspapers and visiting the pound, or making bird houses and visiting the bird rescue society we have in this area, but most of the favorites have people connected to the service on the other end."
Bassett also knows the program is working because of the number of ninth and tenth graders who have moved on but return to ask to do community service with the group. She helps these students find outlets for their desire to help others, and they regularly volunteer in their new schools. The course is so popular that Oakwood has put restrictions on the number of times middle school students may sign up for it.
"I think the kids start out thinking, 'Great! We get to go on a field trip every week, and there isn't much homework,'" explained Bassett. "Somewhere along the line their hearts are touched, and the class obviously becomes something much more to them. They end up just plain feeling good because they get to help someone else every week. When they go out to the migrant worker camp and see what the living conditions are and the extreme poverty that many children their own age live in, they want to come back to school and invent ways to help, and they do. After one such visit, they did a very successful coat drive and delivered the clothing to the camp."
The course is run by Bassett, and two parent drivers assist each week. The parents know by the course description what it will be like for their children, and every Friday she sends home an information sheet that details the following week's trip and asks for help where it is needed. The class would not be possible without the support of administrators and parents.
"This course is more work than all of my ten music classes, my calligraphy class, my girl's chorus class, and my four choirs combined, but I would let them all go in a heartbeat if I had to choose between them and this one course," said Bassett. "Those other classes are wonderful enrichment classes, but this class enriches the souls of the children who take it, and I feel the change in their lives."