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How National Service Can Fuel Social-Emotional Development

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An often overlooked aspect of the American education infrastructure is national service, such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. These programs, which include organizations such as City Year, Teach for America, Jumpstart, and many others, connect students with Americans who want to make a difference. We spoke with Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, about the agency's work and how national service can support the social, emotional, and academic development of students and adults alike.

Learning Is Social And Emotional: Can you briefly explain the role of the Corporation for National and Community Service?

Stewart: CNCS is the federal agency that funds national service programs like AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, which enable Americans of all ages to engage in service in their communities. Right now, there are more than 300,000 Americans participating in over 50,000 locations throughout the country. And frequently, these participants are doing education-oriented work, often directly in schools.

As an example, our Foster Grandparent Program is specifically designed to have seniors serve in schools and provide teachers with an extra set of hands and eyes. One thing I love about this program is the wide array of schools it serves, which makes it flexible and interesting. I've had the privilege of seeing these Senior Corps volunteers in action. Whether mentoring students with disabilities or young people in juvenile detention centers or students, their presence has a calming effect and makes a difference, helping young people be all that they can be.

We also place Senior Corps Foster Grandparents in early education environments, through a program called Jumpstart. That extra set of eyes and ears and patience and adult touch in those classrooms makes a huge difference in getting kids - some of whom may be coming to education further behind than we would hope - the full range of support that they need.

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LISAE: At the core of CNCS is a commitment to national service. What does national service mean in practice for participants? What skills does national service build in young people?

Stewart: National service is a unique opportunity to engage in an intensive period of commitment to your community and country. Particularly for young people who engage in national service, it's an opportunity for them to learn a wide range of skills - both academic and career skills, such as working in a school to prepare for a career in teaching, but also the important interpersonal skills that are essential for any career. Participants learn leadership and communication skills, and they also learn about the community in which they live and about coexisting and working with people from different backgrounds.

One other really important benefit of participating in our programs is that AmeriCorps members earn a Segal Education Award - it's financially significant and can be used to pay down student debt or for future education. It's a wonderful, meaningful benefit of participation in AmeriCorps that can support lifelong learning and development.

LISAE: We know that education is a key priority for CNCS. Can you talk about a particularly exciting or interesting investment/grantee in the education world?

Stewart: That's challenging because there are so many exciting programs we support. Some are the sort of household names that most folks have heard of - City Year is a good example. AmeriCorps members work directly with classroom leaders, identifying early warning signs for kids that might be at risk and providing extra support to teachers.

But we fund a myriad of other terrific programs. I mentioned Jumpstart, which is much more focused on early childhood. Of course, one of our most well-known programs is Teach For America, which gets teachers in classrooms in challenging environments where schools may be short-staffed.

TFA is a good example of how national service makes a huge difference not only to the community, but to the participants themselves. The transformational aspect of working in a difficult environment with challenging clients; the commitment to working in an environment that might be totally different from how you grew up; these are critical skills to develop and lessons to learn. We don't mix people up enough in this country, I think. Exposing more Americans to individuals who share their passion and commitment for service but may be from very different backgrounds is a fantastic social and emotional experience, particularly for young people in their early 20s who are very much still developing.

LISAE: The CNCS Education Toolkit seems like a great tool for communities and educators. How can communities use the toolkit to support the development of social and emotional skills?

Stewart: We made the toolkit to help educators figure out how to use our resources. An unfortunate reality is that many folks still don't know about all of our programs and how they can help their schools or communities. I might rather say that our programs support the development of social and emotional skills, and the toolkit helps educators figure out how they can use those programs.

We also want to make superintendents and principals aware of programs in other parts of the country that have been successful. One of the benefits that CNCS brings is that we have the pleasure of seeing a wide array of programs, and are always trying to replicate the strongest and most impactful ones - and share those successes with people in a position to act.

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