By Marie Schutt
An education can’t be defined by the walls of the classroom. In their 2008 study titled “Developing Citizens: The Impact of Civic Learning Opportunities on Students’ Commitment to Civic Participation”, Joseph E. Kahne and Susan E. Sporte surveyed high school students in Chicago to examine the impact that volunteerism and community service have on students’ civic involvement. They found that students who were more active in school and extracurricular activities, and who felt more like they belonged at the school tended to report “higher levels of commitments to civic participation”. These, and the results of similar studies, all seem to point to one overarching trend: that the kind of hands-on learning that happens through volunteering and community service has positive effects on academics, citizenship, and personal development.
The 2010 New York Times article “The Benefits of Volunteerism, If The Service is Real” discusses the many personal benefits of volunteering if the intention is genuine. The article cites another study carried out by Kahne and colleagues, this one in California, where they found that high school students who were engaged in community service of some kind were more likely to be involved in civic service in their lives after graduation. Most striking, perhaps, in terms of students’ personal growth and citizenship, is the finding that students who were involved in volunteer work (whether it was required or not) were more likely to indicate that they’d vote when eligible than those who weren’t. Students were asked about voting twice: once at the beginning of their high school career, and once at the end. Those who weren’t involved in volunteering and answered no to the first time were much more likely to answer with a ‘yes’ the second time if they’d spent time involved in some kind of civic or community service in between. The study also found that students who had some kind of outlet to discuss and reflect upon their service experiences tended to get more out of the work.
At Clonlara we not only recognize that community involvement is crucial to a student’s education; we require it, for graduation from both our campus and our home-based programs. And though some may argue that required or mandatory community service defeats the purpose of volunteering, we have already come up with our own solution to this problem: our students pursue their interests and passions in their volunteer work and civic involvement. As with many other aspects of their Clonlara educations, students get to choose how to how and where to serve their communities (although we do place limits on volunteering through churches or religious organizations.) Their service is meaningful, and allows many of our students to try out potential career paths. For students who have never held a job, community service provides valuable working and skill-building experience.
Clonlara Campus students have put many hours of their time into a diverse array of projects, including the following:
– Food Gatherers (a program that distributes millions of pounds of food to needy families in Washtenaw County)
– Growing Hope (a program that supports and advocates sustainable food and health equity)
-Great Strides (a therapeutic riding stable)
– University of Michigan Spectrum Center (a center for student-centered education, outreach, support and advocacy for LGBT issues)
– The Michigan Abilities Center (a center for healing, teaching, and innovative equine therapy)
– The Young Actors Guild (an Ann Arbor production company and resource for education through drama)
– Peace Neighborhood Center (provides support/programming for children, families and individuals experiencing social/economic difficulties)
We’ve also had students pursue projects on their own in their communities, including creating art for donation and installation at a local library to promote the message “reading is cool” and working with the “Planned Pethood Adoption Program” at the local Petco. Students also help out around the school with yard projects and clean up, and some students also do their community service work through their families’ place of worship.
While almost all American public schools mandate some kind of community service for graduation, these programs don’t always meet their full potential to foster the kind of character-building and civic awareness that we see develop in our students. We do find that an hour requirement is necessary, but the point is not to simply rack up volunteer hours until the numbers add up. It is simply to ensure that our students have adequate time to learn through service in the world beyond their homes or classrooms.