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A Celebration of Student Service

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By Bob Farrace, Senior Director for Communications and Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)

This weekend, nearly 1,000 of the nation's top youth leaders will gather in Oklahoma City for the National Association of Student Councils (NASC) Annual Conference. They'll gather for the obvious reasons — to learn from one another, collect ideas, and build their own leadership skills. But for school leaders and the communities they serve, the conference is a celebration of the great contributions students can make when adults empower them then get out of their way.

School leaders have long acknowledged the value of student service. It's the very reason NASSP founded what have become some of the nation's premiere student-service organizations, including the National Honor Society and NASC. And as service evolved into service learning, NASSP promoted a model of service integrated with learning goals in the Raising Student Voice and Participation Program (RSVP). Since its inception in 2007, schools have adopted RSVP to improve the order of cafeteria lines, reduce bullying, stock local food pantries, and on and on. The projects range in size and intensity, but are united by common elements that the process is always inquiry-based and student-led.

Fortunately, 30+ years of service learning has yielded research that points to key benefits, according to a February 2010 Kappan review of literature:

Improved academic achievement. Evidence points to increased test scores in reading, math, social studies, and science among students engaged in service learning activities.

Improved student engagement in school and learning. Students in experiential learning express higher interest in and motivation for learning than did students in comparison groups. Further, engagement in community-based experiential learning activities "exposed students to factors and opportunities known to mediate academic achievement, including opportunities for students to act autonomously, develop collegial relationships with adults and peers, and boost their self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy."

Enhanced civic responsibility and citizenship. Service learning and exposure to effective strategies for civic education are the strongest predictors of commitment to civic participation — stronger even than school, neighborhood, or family factors.

Enhanced personal and social skills. Several studies have found service learning to be an effective instructional strategy for developing students' leadership capacity, self-esteem and self-efficacy, preparation for the workforce, and transitions to adulthood.

We often consider school a place to prepare for the real world. That language masks a much more profound reality — that school is the real world. It's a place from which students can observe their community, identify real problems, and coordinate efforts to solve them. And at a time when most communities are discussing how much they have to invest in their public schools, stories of student service remind us just how much we derive from them.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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