Those of us in the community service profession have always known its value for students. We have spent many passionate hours with administrations, parents, colleagues and students discussing the merits of service as experiential education. However, from many conversations with my own students and from talking to dozens of service directors over the past few years, I am deeply concerned about a trend I see.
Service programs are moving from another method for students to test their academic and developmental knowledge to one of the only methods. It seems that many schools are either losing or cutting out opportunities for experiential learning or students are dropping those opportunities that continue to be available for fear their “academic” grades will suffer and thus impede their chances for college admission.
I am concerned because if this trend continues, we will see dire consequences and our service programs cannot bear the load alone. We cannot underestimate the power that experiential education and community service programs carry for the future of our students. Their power is not just in the nurturing of morals and a sense of responsibility to self and others. Their power is also in the creation of a place to grow that students will not find in the classroom. If we do not let them experience that growth within the sight of our watchful eyes and loving arms we are in essence pushing them to do it somewhere else without that guidance. I am beginning to see and hear of these consequences already.
As schools are becoming more focused on academics and/or having to cut out extracurricular, athletics, or arts programs, our students are stuck. They are having a harder time finding safe, supervised, and healthy places to experiment, to test boundaries, to test their growing identities, or to test their perception of the world. This testing is endemic to adolescence and if we do not provide our children with those spaces, they will seek out their own.
Unfortunately, the world has many unhealthy and unsafe places to do it these days. Mary Aruda, a Ph.D. and R.N. at the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Children’s Hospital, Boston recently conducted a study through Harvard University; she found that while adolescent pregnancy rates have been decreasing, sexually transmitted diseases rates for this age group have escalated. Susan Landers, in the American Medical News published these results from 2002: “Almost a quarter of sexually active teens and young adults—about 5.6 million nationally—have had unprotected sex because they were drinking or using drugs at the time.” Kaiser data shows that approximately 15 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur in the U.S. annually, and that by age 24, one in three sexually active people will have an STD. Some 73% of teens surveyed in this study said that they and their peers don’t use condoms when alcohol or drugs are involved; 53% said “people their age” mix alcohol or drugs with sex “a lot.”
Obviously our schools’ human-development curriculum is integral to this issue (if they have one!), but I think it is telling that the increase in sexually transmitted diseases and drug use among teens coincides with this trend of limiting safe places for experiential learning. I talk to teens at many schools across the country regularly. I don’t see or hear evidence of an increase in experiential education opportunities over the last five years. Instead, I see and hear of unsupervised experimentation with more dangerous consequences and in riskier places. I encounter students who talk to me about how they make choices strictly according to whether or not the activity will be “an outlet” for them, and it alarms me that they do not seem concerned with what kind of outlet.
Community service learning, hands-on social justice curricula, and experiential education are ideal outlets. They allow spaces and places for students to channel the passion, anger, and energy that have a limited place in the classroom but are natural for them to feel. These programs provide experiences that students can own individually yet participate in and process under the guidance of those whom they respect. They act as bridges to the “real world,” places to test and apply the knowledge we are teaching them. This is not only preparing them for college, but life.
Isn’t that the big picture of why we all got involved in education? Aren’t we trying to educate capable, motivated, moral people? How do we know if we have succeeded if we don’t provide them with good ways to demonstrate it? Many schools are making tough budget cuts and are losing extracurricular or experiential programs. Many other schools might have these programs but have turned up the academic pressure to the point where students have dropped their sports teams, their involvement in service, or the school play because they needed to spend that time struggling to maintain a certain GPA.
Many communities are losing their churches, 4-H clubs, [and] after-school programs. We need to fill in those gaps. Some may say it is not the job of the schools to do this. I strongly disagree. If not the schools, then who? We are communities of learning. How narrow a definition do we want to use? I cannot count the students I have worked with that have found a place to channel anger into passion, boredom into focused task, cynicism into purpose simply by being pointed in the right direction, to a need or challenge that creates positive change.
As both a community service consultant and human development teacher, I am certain that the dangerous or poor decisions made by our students stem from a lack of alternative places to test their perceptions of the world. If we continue to provide those places and nurture communities that value those places, our students will gain the balanced education they deserve. They will acquire knowledge of the world but also a solid sense of where and how their individual gifts fit into that world. Giving them only half of this education is an injustice.