By Charis Denison, The Urban School of San Francisco
California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) — Fall/Winter 2000
(published elsewhere as, “Let’s Drop the Debate”)

The hot debate these days seems to be whether to require service programs in schools or to encourage participation in service that occurs outside of school hours. I have worked in schools with both programs and believe it should not be a debate at all. We don’t debate whether or not to require math or to provide time in a student’s schedule to master its skills and concepts. Yet, though we espouse the benefits of service and career exploration, students struggle to fit those experiences into their already too-busy lives. Our programs need to be modified to attain specific academic and experiential goals and to be integrated into our curriculum and the academic day.

As high schools become increasingly academic and our students and families become more and more anxious about college and the future, we need to protect those spaces that allow students to pursue other aspects of their education. At the same time, we need to give credibility and value to those aspects by formalizing them and celebrating the myriad ways our students are applying what they learn to their own lives. If we don’t do this, we will end up graduating young men and women who, while demonstrating academic mastery, are insufficiently prepared for the other essential requirements and demands of life and lack the balance we are obligated to teach them.

At Urban, we have already heard from some of last June’s graduates who have incorporated service into their continuing academic lives. They have pursued this path not out of duty but from a desire to use another important and effective tool for learning. They understand the reciprocity involved in the process of service learning and see service as another facet of their education. One of these students is following his passion for the teaching field in a Harlem classroom while attending NYU.

Akin thrived in the area of experiential learning. An African American boy in a predominantly Caucasian school, he was seeking a place in his school community. While involved in many school activities, he wanted to find a service learning project that involved people of color and shared a powerful experience with a boy named Calvin in our neighborhood public school in the Haight Ashbury district. Calvin was in an SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) classroom with seven other African American students and one Caucasian teacher. Akin filled an important space in the lives of those kids and especially in Calvin’s. Calvin had already been held back that year, and he “graduated” from fifth grade with a kindergarten reading level.

Akin’s next service learning project in the county jail dealt with legal rights for inmates. He was able to talk with inmates and research questions they had about their rights. Akin became more interested in both history and constitutional law during this time, and he also wanted to know more about the link between Calvin’s situation and that of African Americans in San Francisco County jails.

The following spring, Akin came back to me and said he wanted to find Calvin. He didn’t want Calvin to think he had forgotten him or given up on him. Akin found him at a middle school in another SED classroom that was so out of control it had gone through five substitutes in one month. Akin talked the principal into an interview, and subsequently spent five months in that classroom. His reflection at the end of year characterized his service projects as a mirror. He took what Urban was showing him in the classroom and tested it out in a construct of his own design, one that made the best sense to him and that spoke to his own passions.

I heard from Akin recently via email. This was some of what he had to say:

“… Have you heard of a program called America Reads? I just got placed in a school in Harlem working in a program equivalent to SED. I met with the principal and I told him about my previous experiences with this kind of work. Charis, I knew how strong Urban’s program was when I was there but lately I’ve been piecing everything together. It had little to do with “community service.” I never just gave service to some screwed up community that needed MY help. We did something bigger than ‘helping out the community.’ It was more of a mutual connection with a part of MY community. I was thinking about how lucky it was that I met Calvin. He literally changed my life. I was just there to tell him that there is a way out, even though that tunnel might seem long and weary, and really dark, with no lights, and where roses hardly ever rise because a rose cannot grow from concrete. Hopefully, my message to him was received; that he could be that one rose slips through and finds light between the crevices of the cement.”

One last example of a student incorporating the gifts of Community Service Learning into her first year of college is Anna. She is pursuing her dream of working in veterinary medicine. I asked her to speak about her experience with our program and what she took away from it.

“Community Service Learning gave us all a chance to experience a taste of what the real world is like. It starts with unreturned phone calls and the frustration of convincing someone that even though I am not quite eighteen, I am responsible, I care, and most of all that I can do it. I worked at a non-profit veterinary clinic. At first I got to clean litter boxes and walk dogs. Quickly, as the people got to know and trust me, I started inheriting more responsibilities. After working there for two years, I now talk to pet owners, give shots, and am still trying to perfect the art of taking blood. Having people trust me made me trust myself more than I thought I could. As much as animals were the main reason I volunteered at the clinic, the people I met and worked with made my experience intense and life-changing. Above all, I believe that the program gave each student the possibility to find a passion or an interest and pursue that passion to its fullest. Not only that, but the program gave students the freedom and power to shape those experiences themselves.”

Students and families believe that putting all their emphasis on academics will give them more options for college, and therefore, somehow, more preparation for life. However, this perception is false on many levels. Service learning does what academic classes cannot: allow students to test, explore, and apply what they are learning in the classroom. They get concrete evidence of the universal reciprocity of the learning process—e.g.: “I give of myself, I receive skills and knowledge in return.” And, this application is occurring in a safe and nurturing environment. If we allow those opportunities to vanish, we are providing a limited education. I am tired of meeting medical students who never set foot in a hospital until graduate school, learning only then that they hated medicine. On the other hand, I rejoice every time a student comes leaping into my office in the fall saying, “I want to be a doctor!” And then bounds into my office in the spring saying, “but not in the ER—in pediatrics!” High schools are a place to experiment with passions and talents both in and out of the academic classroom. The challenge for independent schools is to continue to create opportunities for that process to occur.