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Service-Learning Thrives Despite Less Funding, Time

Even though demands on school time and funds continue to increase, service-learning programs remain popular, according to research. Principals praised their positive influence on student learning and school climate. Included: Information supporting service-learning programs.

More and more mandates fill the school day, but U.S. principals still find time for students to engage in service-learning projects that expand their studies and benefit their communities.

According to "Growing to Greatness: The State of Service Learning Project" of the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), the percentage of schools in the United States offering service-learning programs held its own over five years: 32 percent in 1999 versus 30 percent in 2004. The only sector with a significant decline was middle schools, in which the percentage of schools with programs dropped from 38 percent to 30 percent.

Researchers surveyed about 2,000 K-12 principals for the 2004 report. The NYLC survey results were compared with statistics from a 1999 study done by the U.S. Department of Education.

About 23,000 public schools in the United States offer service-learning programs, in which 4.5 million students participate.


According to NYLC, service-learning is defined as student programs organized in relation to a specific academic course or curriculum, with clearly stated learning objectives that address real community needs in a sustained manner over a period of time. Students taking samples from a lake or stream, testing the content of the samples, and then reporting the findings to the community is one example of a service-learning project.

"The staying power of service-learning can be seen in that it has survived and continued over these past five years, despite considerable pressures, such as school budget cuts, focus on meeting state mandates, and concerns with implications of No Child Left Behind," said Ellen Tenenbaum, a researcher at Westat, the firm responsible for conducting the survey. "The survey suggests that principals see a real value in service- learning's ability to underscore and enhance such key things as students' civic engagement and school-community relationships."


Other findings from the study include:

  • Nine of ten principals in schools that offer service-learning say it has a positive impact on students' civic engagement, personal and social development, and school-community partnerships.
  • Eight of ten principals in schools that offer service-learning say it has a positive impact on academic achievement, teacher satisfaction, school climate, school engagement, and the community's view of youth as resources.
  • Fewer schools serving lower-income communities offer service-learning programs (29 percent versus 36 percent), even though principals at lower-income schools place a higher value on the benefits of service-learning projects.

Sharon Buddin, principal at Ridge View High School in Columbia, South Carolina, said service-learning has far-reaching benefits. "Principals support service-learning as an educational tool because every day we see the evidence that it works," she said. "It means students have a more strongly-rooted sense of their civic duties. It means that the personal and social development of our children is boosted in positive ways. And there are other benefits, too. Teachers who are engaged in service-learning tend to be more positive about the work they do, and we also see a higher level of parental involvement, which is key to academic achievement."

NYLC president James Kielsmeier said researchers from the study still don't have a solid reason for the drop off in serving-learning programs at the middle school level. One researcher suggested that recent studies saying current middle school programs focus more on developing a nurturing climate than strong academics, and the emphasis on high-stakes tests in eighth grade, may have spurred some principals to drop service-learning programs, according to Kielsmeier.

"Which is all the more sad, because service-learning is the type of pedagogy middle school kids benefit most from," he said.


The future for community service programs also looks bright. The number of schools offering those programs increased over five years, from 64 percent to 69 percent. Community service differs from service-learning in that during community service, students engage in non-curriculum-based projects to meet community needs.

"The new numbers show that community service and service-learning have become widespread practices in American schools," said Kielsmeier. "We see a solid base of schools and educators committed to using those important tools for improving their students and the communities in which they live."