Priority School Educators are “Bringing Learning to Life”
Visit St. Stephen’s Community House in Columbus, Ohio, on a day Shawna Streeter’s preschoolers from Hamilton STEM Academy are visiting their friends in the senior citizen program, and you’d think you were visiting a family reunion.
The students greet their “senior friends” with hugs, smiles and “I love you.” Then the real fun begins as both generations participate in activities geared towards improving their physical health and keeping their brains sharp.
On one visit, the students prepared a healthy fruit tart with their senior friends. On another visit, they played shapes and colors bingo together. Practicing exercises together is another way they stay active.
“How can you not have a good day when the children come?” said JoAnn Thompson, a participant in St. Stephen’s senior program. “They are fantastic and we all enjoy when they visit.”
In August of 2010, Learn & Serve America, a program of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, awarded the NEA Foundation a $550,000 grant to partner with Ohio State University’s (OSU) College of Education and Human Ecology and the Columbus Education Association to implement “Bringing Learning to Life.” The grant originated through a proposal submitted by NEA’s External Partnerships and Advocacy Department, which is also directing and overseeing the project in collaboration with the NEA Foundation.
Through graduate level course work at OSU, the “Bringing Learning to Life” project trains K-12 teachers how to implement service-learning projects that help their students see the clear connection between their academic curriculum and real-world experience, while simultaneously strengthening students’ engagement with school and the communities in which they live.
Service-learning is defined by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” It’s an education movement, long advocated for by NEA, that has been shown in numerous studies to improve academic outcomes for students and to help them build critical thinking and teamwork skills.
Dr. Valerie Kinloch, a professor of literacy studies at OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology explains, “Service-learning is teachers, students, and community partners working to understand how academics can link to community service.”
Two cohorts of teachers from Columbus City Schools have now completed the service-learning course, led by Kinloch. Twenty-nine projects in the first cohort, ranging from community gardens to public theater performances, are now in the implementation process.
Streeter’s project is “Healthy Living in Linden.” She knew there was a need for the Linden community in Columbus to learn about healthy lifestyles, as their zip code had the highest obesity rates in Franklin County. Feeling the best way to tackle the problem was to impact multiple generations, Streeter partnered with the senior program at St. Stephen’s, a social service and health providing resource center for the high-poverty Linden community.
The planning for the visits is student centered. Streeter chose the umbrella topic of healthy living, but her students choose the activities to do with the seniors. The project has had an impact for both the preschoolers and the seniors.
“I think sometimes we don’t realize how much we impact each other. Even just visiting for an hour each month, it’s huge,” says Streeter.
Through the project, the young students have been exposed to a world outside of their classroom. They see that learning can happen anywhere, not just at school. For the seniors, the visits from the preschoolers boost spirit and even confidence.
Not all of the participants in St. Stephen’s senior program can read. For one man, that meant not playing games with the other seniors. But when the young students came to play color and shape bingo, he not only participated but won for the first time.
Streeter says her students frequently talk about their senior friends in the classroom and think of ways to include them in their learning. “St. Stephen’s is not just a place down the street anymore,” said Streeter. “It’s where we go. It’s part of Pre-K now.”
The Role of Service-Learning in School Transformation
The majority of teachers in the first cohort of Kinloch’s service-learning course were from Linden-McKinley STEM Academy, one of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign targeted sites.
Linden-McKinley has been through a lot of change the past several years. Located in the Linden community, the school was struggling to keep students enrolled as charter schools popped up.
In a radical effort to turn the tides, a new curriculum built around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) was introduced for the 2009-2010 school year. The new curriculum emphasizes 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. In addition, middle and high school students were combined to form a STEM academy serving grades 7 through 12.
The transition was not an easy one, with the community feeling left out of the decision-making process. But through the support of the NEA’s Public Engagement Project, the Columbus Education Association convened a community conversation attended by more than 300 people — parents, business leaders, teachers, district administrators, and local faith-based and political leaders. The presentation on the new STEM curriculum and its potential to close achievement gaps was a success.
With everyone on board, the process of transforming Linden-McKinley began. One of the key elements of the transformation: the integration of service-learning into the school environment.
Linden-McKinley is a project-based learning school, meaning staff take standards of what students are supposed to know from the state and mesh those standards so they are interdisciplinary across math, science, English and social studies.
“Being a STEM school we focus on creating authentic learning opportunities for students so they can see the relevancy and connect it to life outside of school,” said Principal Tiffany Chavers. “The service-learning projects give students an opportunity to make those connections.”
Joe Crowley is a 9th grade Social Studies teacher at Linden-McKinley. He was part of the first cohort to go through Kinloch’s course, where the final project was a grant proposal in support of a service-learning classroom project. His project “Neighborhood Drug-Use’s Impact on Housing, Quality of Life” was funded and is now in full implementation.
Through the “Drug Project,” students study the effects of drugs and how drug-abuse impacts the community. Crowley’s students made maps of where they lived, looked up crimes in those areas and what kinds of drugs are associated with those areas. They conducted polls in classes, made PowerPoint presentations, and even integrated technology into the project by filming their own PSAs using handheld cameras Crowley was able to purchase with the grant for his project.
“We have done things here at Linden that we didn’t think we could do,” said Crowley. “We’ve seen a change in work ethic, the students are proud of their project. They’re not just turning something in for a grade. They want to make sure that if it has their name on it, that it’s good work.”
Crowley’s students don’t only work on their “Drug Project” in his class. Their learning is carried over to other core subjects, where the concepts are explored through those disciplines. The entire 9th grade team of about 180 students and math, science and English teachers is involved now.
The focus on student-centered and project-based learning is starting to pay off. Last year, the school raised their Performance Index by 4 points. Tenth-grade scores on the Ohio Graduation Tests rose by double-digits in reading, math, writing and social students, and went up 9 percent in science.
“We’re not just a stand alone entity in the middle of a neighborhood,” said Timothy Wangler, a 12th grade literature arts teacher whose service-learning project has students turning a book into a theater production to be performed for the community. “We’re changing the overall perception of what school is.”
The “Bringing Learning to Life” program isn’t just about the relationship between schools and their communities. It demonstrates the positive impact partnerships between local unions, schools, and community groups can have on both the education of students and neighborhood connections.
“We have these three major institutions [The Ohio State University, Columbus Education Association and Columbus City Schools] working together thinking about education,” explained Kinloch. “We’re not proposing mandates or regulations; we are saying we are concerned about students. We are concerned about teachers. We are concerned about local communities. We don’t need to work in isolation.”
The Columbus Education Association (CEA) has had a partnership with OSU for 50 years. They partner on teacher preparation, both with current educators through graduate coursework and future educators through connecting OSU students with their field experiences in Columbus City Schools.
CEA has been instrumental in getting teachers to participate in the “Bringing Learning to Life” project and coordinating the grants for the individual service-learning projects.
“Were not just a partner whose name is listed on the page,” said Rhonda Johnson, President of the Columbus Education Association. “We’re a partner who is making sure the grant is supported and their work is supported.”
While the professional development for teachers is an important attribute of the project, for CEA, the bottom line is the students and how the service-learning projects can help them succeed in school.
“It’s helpful for students to see they’re not always just consumers, they have something to give back,” said Johnson. “The service-learning has helped them learn that.”
Community partners, such as St. Stephen’s Community House are also critical to the success of “Bringing Learning to Life.”
St. Stephen’s was founded in the Linden community in 1919. Their programs range from providing food to families to after-school tutoring for students in the area. With a long-established connection to the community, St. Stephen’s is a natural partner for the service-learning project.
“We are the link between the community and the school system,” said Tommy Ferguson, the local project coordinator for “Bringing Learning to Life” and the tutoring coordinator at St. Stephen’s.
Ferguson partly credits the hands-on learning approach of the service-learning projects for some of the academic gains at participating schools.
“We are creating a culture of learning that isn’t the ‘typical teacher in front of the classroom,’ but seeing projects through start to finish,” explained Ferguson. “Any time you have an opportunity that generates interest and excitement in learning from students, you can’t stop them.”