Despite the pressures on schools to focus more on academics, Dr. Shannon Vincent is convinced it's her job as principal to teach students the value of service. She began a year-long, school-wide service program that engages students and their parents. Included: A description of a school-wide community service program.
With all the demands on teachers and schools now, it's hard to imagine a principal taking on anything else, especially something as ambitious as a school-wide, year-long community service program. But Dr. Shannon Vincent, principal of Trent Lott Middle School in Pascagoula, Mississippi, believes she is falling short as an educator if she does not engage young people in community service.
"My personal feeling is that the purpose of my life is to teach kids to take care of themselves and each other," Vincent told Education World. "I want them to learn to serve the community and others around them. We have to teach young people to serve the community -- and the world."
Vincent plunged into the community service arena shortly after she took over as principal at Trent Lott two years ago. Before the start of last school year, she met with school counselors to find out what service programs the school already had in place and which potential community-service topics would be of greatest interest to the school's grade 6-8 students. The result is a comprehensive service program with a special theme or project for each month of the school year.
Balancing academic demands and service projects is tricky, but well-worth the time and effort, according to Vincent. "Tests are important, but drilling and killing can take the fun out of school," she said. "Kids have to want to come to school. Once we get them to school, we can work on other things."
The program also has been well-received by the community, added Vincent. "Parents are very supportive and this program has sparked some conversations between parents and kids."
Developing a program that would appeal to students of all abilities and backgrounds was important to Vincent as well. While some of Trent Lott's students will attend college, others will follow in their parents' footsteps and work as pipe fitters, welders, or other skilled laborers at the local shipbuilding plant. "We wanted to reach kids who might not be interested in the higher-level classes and might not be going to college," she said, since the values and lessons of community service benefit all students.
Students also get a chance to see who their efforts are helping and how. At the end of each project, someone involved with the organization that benefited from the project visits the school and speaks to the students. For example, after the school raised $1,200 for the local humane society through a Pennies for Puppies campaign in September, a representative from the society came to school with a dog that had been abandoned and now is working as a service dog. Families also got involved through a Paws for a Cause walk, during which family members brought their pets to school for a walk.
Parents remain involved in the humane society effort by donating supplies such as dog food and newspapers that can be shredded for puppy beds. "If we get parents to work toward serving the community, then I really have done my job," Vincent said.
The holiday season offers opportunities for varied and traditional community projects. Students began collecting food in November for a local food bank and the Salvation Army. In honor of Veteran's Day, they also sold T-shirts that read "Freedom Isn't Free" and donated the money to help injured veterans. In December students are collecting toys for needy youngsters and making cards for hospitalized children. When they deliver the cards, they plan to read stories to the kids in the hospital. Senior citizens in local nursing homes also will receive cards and be treated to a carol sing. "The kids love it [visiting seniors] because a lot of them don't have grandparents, or some may have younger grandparents and so they have no contact with people from this generation," noted Vincent.
Students were busy in October as well, raising money for the United Way, an organization familiar to many children whose families sought help after Hurricane Katrina. "We got a lot of support after Hurricane Katrina and this is part of paying it back," said Cathy Boyd, one of the school's counselors. "I like getting kids involved."
After an active fall, the school has a full line-up for the second semester. Programs include a Support Our Troops effort in January, when students will be collecting cell phones and writing letters to send to servicemen and women overseas. In February, the school will be raising money for the American Heart Association; in March, efforts will benefit a local charity; and students will focus on the environment and recycling in April. The program and school year ends in May with fundraising for the American Cancer Society.
The school's initiative has inspired a number of students to pursue independent community service projects. Trent Lott students volunteered to be bell-ringers for the Salvation Army during the holiday season, and two sets of students approached Boyd with ideas for Christmas-related programs. Some students also volunteer to read to elementary students; others volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month. "Many of them have an idea of what it is like to need help," Vincent told Education World.
Even with the community service program, the school still finds time for activities that promote students' personal awareness and growth. "Middle school is the make-or-break time," said Vincent. "We can influence whether they go on to graduate from high school. My job is to make sure they go on and make it."
In October, the school held a We Are the Future Day and students came dressed as members of a profession in which they were interested. Many dressed like their teachers, counselors, and even Vincent. "After reading to some of the younger students, some of our students have said they want to become teachers," Vincent noted. "If we raise 30 teachers out of a school of 430 kids, that's good for us."
Half of the seventh graders also participated in a job shadow day in October. The school also held a college/career day near Halloween and called it Trick or Treat for Your Future. Besides talking to college representatives, students also learned about vocations such as welding and pipe fitting. "After the college day, almost everyone said they wanted to go to college," said Vincent.
"We try to give them different experiences to see what they like. We're hopeful everyone will know what they want to do by tenth grade."
Whatever path students decide to take Vincent hopes they will continue to see service to others as an important part of their lives. "Sometimes you can make good grades and still have an empty life -- you have to have some way to let the world know 'I'm here,'" she said. "So we encourage service to the community and getting a good job."