Flipping through our most recent, National Schools of Character Magazine, I was intrigued by a photo of students from Cherry Hill Alternative High School (Cherry Hill). Instead of sitting at desks in a classroom, they were out in their community, learning from local business leaders.
Eager to learn more about the school’s service learning initiatives, I called up Dawn Lacy, a counselor at the school. Through talking with Dawn and her colleagues, Diane O’Brien and Susan Gibbs, I learned how Cherry Hill’s service learning program has come to be so successful.
Incorporating Student Input
In my discussion with teachers at Cherry Hill, one comment really stood out. “The services we have relate to the personalities of our students.” Too often community service projects are determined by outside factors like location and convenience rather than students’ passion. At Cherry Hill, teachers emphasize student voice and choice and work to establish strong, lasting community partnerships.
Driven by students’ interest in helping other children, many of their projects involve assisting at other schools. The service learning trips occur once a month and students choose among five or six projects. Examples include helping at a preschool or elementary school, assisting in a middle school for students with special needs, visiting homebound seniors, gardening at an assisted living facility and participating in Habitat for Humanity projects. Although students have a variety of choices, because of the bonds they form with the community members, they tend to choose the same projects consistently..
Teachers at Cherry Hill acknowledged that weaving academics into service learning can be challenging but they have found a number of ways to do it.
While studying the underground railroad, students discovered there was a cemetery from that era nearby. The students noticed it desperately needed some cleaning up and faced the task head on. Despite rain, they worked tirelessly, picking up litter and beautifying the space. Students reported that they would share the history of the cemetery with their family but they were equally as proud to share that they had helped somebody. Although trash pickup can be a simple community service project, when it’s combined with meaningful knowledge of the history of a place and the people who lived (or in this case were buried) there, it becomes an enriching service learning experience.
In addition to in-depth service projects that connect to academic subjects, service learning trips at Cherry Hill provide students with unique opportunities to enhance their learning.
While visiting the elementary school, Cherry Hill students build their literacy skills, as well as their self-esteem. The elementary school children enjoy listening to stories and bonding with the older students. The opportunity to be the reading experts helps the high school students gain confidence. Even the high schoolers that struggle with reading or typically don’t enjoy it, have fun getting involved in stories with their younger peers.
Students who visit the middle school to work with students who have special needs are able to assist in science labs. Since Cherry Hill doesn’t have labs at their school, this partnership exposes the high school students to resources that they would not otherwise have access to. It is the very definition of a successful community partnership. Students gaining unique experience while offering valuable services to those in need.
Encouraging Character Development
Although the word service learning requires a combination of community service and academic learning, it would be incomplete without character development. Cherry Hill’s service learning program distinguishes itself not only for its academics and service, but also because it is eye-opening and at times life-changing for the students involved. These service experiences have real impact on students’ lives. Here are a couple fo examples.
A trip to a local food bank, changed the thinking of an entire group of students. Before visiting the food bank, Cherry Hill students understood that hunger was an important issue but when they discovered that the food bank they were visiting was in their own town, it hit home on a new level. The students hadn’t realized the impact that hunger had on their own community. The new information inspired them to continue studying hunger when they returned to school.
Another service project really changed one particular student, Sarah*. She got very excited about a service project about nutrition and her passion helped her get out of her comfort zone. A very withdrawn student, she previously had never gone on school trips and had anxiety about traveling on a bus. However, she overcame her anxiety and even rode the bus to participate in the activity.
After Sarah got involved in this project, she really blossomed and began expressing more interest in other aspects of the school community, as well. She volunteered to work on a character education-focused painting project. She has begun participating in non-community service related trips with her peers. Even her academics have improved. She is now an honor roll student and received a student-of-the-month award.
Creating a high quality service learning program like the one at Cherry Hill takes a lot of time, energy and resources. People often make the mistake of discounting service learning activities due to the commitment it requires. However, it is clear that at Cherry Hill the program is not only a service to the community but an important service to all who participate in it.
*Name changed for student’s privacy