At Your Service: A Conversation with St. Paul Public Schools Community Education Service Learning Program Staff


If you’ve seen groups of kids stenciling anti-pollution messages near storm drains or planting native prairie plants along hillsides, chances are good that you may have seen a community service learning project in action.

The Saint Paul Schools Community Education Service Learning Program is making waves by helping teachers and students harness the energy, skills, and imagination of youth by sponsoring projects that activate real civic and environmental engagement. St. Paul students in grades K-12 have had the opportunity to become involved in the rich tradition of community service by participating with projects that link academic learning with real projects that respond to a particular problem in their community.

Problems addressed by program participants might involve homelessness; others may deal with hunger, intergenerational relationships, or environmental issues like solid waste, watershed or erosion. We wanted to find out more about this program, how it operates, and how classrooms can participate, so we interviewed the folks behind the program a few questions:

**So, how did the Community Education Service Learning Program take off?**

Ginny: The Community Education Service-Learning Program emerged in its present form in 2001. Up to that point, the program was called the Community Education Resource Program. . . which started in the late 1980’s as a result of volunteers working in the school who started bringing in speakers to share their expertise with classrooms. [Volunteers] ranged from neighbors who would share a special interest such as a craft, to people from the U of M and other higher education staff who shared their expertise. As the value of this kind of resource was recognized by teachers and principals, Community Education began hiring people to work several hours a week.

**So, the program began with something “nice” like organizing volunteers, but it grew because they filled a need.**

Roxie: In the early 90’s there was a growing interest in service learning as a teaching methodology. Community Education picked up on this interest and funded a pilot program for service-learning projects in several schools. As the interest in service learning continued to grow among educators, this seemed to be a good focus for the resource program. The classroom-community connections were taken to a higher level, Academic Service-Learning, which fits well with the Community Education philosophy of using problem-solving to improve our communities. There are currently four Community Education Service-Learning Resource Specialists serving the St. Paul Public School District.

**It sounds like a natural transition, to go from bringing community resources into the classroom to sending students out into the world to work on projects like the rain gardens Harding High School students created in St. Paul’s East Side. How did the mini-grants develop?**

Ginny: In 2001, the decision was made to come together in one office. It was also decided there was money through the Community Education Youth Development Funds to provide mini-grants of $500 to teachers who were interested in service-learning as a teaching methodology. Approximately 35 mini-grants have been given out each year since 2002.

We have written grants for funds to provide even more service-learning opportunities—including a Learn and Serve grant from the MN Dept. of Education for promoting service-learning within the Saint Paul Schools, a Community Power grant from the Solid Waste Management Board for waste reduction education, and a Jeffers grant for service-learning projects around the issues of water quality.

**Some might see volunteering and service learning as the same thing. But you distinguish between the two activities. What, in your view, is the main difference between volunteering and service learning?**

Kia: Volunteering is using the mission ideology and service-learning is the opposite of imposing your beliefs and values onto the group of people you are ” doing service” for. Service-Learning includes academic ties, a community needs assessment, reflection, and the investment of community partners.

**Crossroads Science School actually restored their schoolyard to reflect natural biomes in Minnesota using different trees and shrubs. What specific role(s) does your program play in the project process? Do you actually go out and help with projects?**

Kia: Our mission is Service-Learning is an instructional strategy that makes classroom learning authentic and engaging. It connects students to their communities, embodies the elements of community-based learning, fosters civic responsibility, and enhances academic achievement. We can not only help financially through our mini-grants, but by supporting the teacher in using service-learning as her or his teaching methodology. We are not the teachers; they are the experts. We also can provide Service-Learning training for teachers and community partners.

Bev: We are available as a resource, as needed, to seek out guest speakers or special programs to come into the classroom to enhance the project’s educational piece. As students are learning about an issue, community partners are a valuable component in the whole process. Teachers and students may have very clear ideas about how to access these partners, but sometimes need help. We are here to assist in making those connections, as needed.

**What, if any, obstacles do you face when talking to people about service learning as a viable and effective learning methodology? How do you overcome them?**

Ginny: Teachers’ days are very busy and filled with teaching the core subjects. Until they understand that service-learning meets their teaching objectives and connects to standards, they hesitate to “take the time” to enter into service-learning. Networking with other teachers and seeing how others have connected their projects to core subjects is especially important.

**Would you say that teachers are pretty much aware of what service learning is? How much teaching of teachers or coaching of students do you have to do to prepare them for these projects?**

Ginny: Our method of connecting with schools has evolved over the past years. In 2002, when we first came together as a team in one location, the buzz word in the district was ‘data driven decision making’. That said to us that we should know what kind of service-learning was taking place in the district that we were not aware of. That year we visited 80% schools and asked teachers at a regular teacher meeting to take a short survey which asked if they knew about service-learning, practiced service-learning and if they wanted to do service-learning. We used the results to contact those teachers who wanted to incorporate service-learning in their classrooms. The next year we visited all principals in the district and always put our mini-grant on the Superintendents Bulletin which all staff in the district are required to read. This year we again visited all principals, encouraging them to have their teachers use our service-learning mini-grants. Over the past two years more and more teachers have been coming to us and checking out our website which is very encouraging for our program.

Bev: We, in an effort for students to understand more clearly what service-learning is, have done classroom presentations about the essential elements of service-learning. We also want students to have an awareness of what a grant is. We do not go to a school and say, “Here is a great service-learning” project for you.” First of all, teachers would resist (and rightfully so), and students would feel like it’s just another assignment, or perhaps that they are free laborers.

A vital component to service-learning is encouraging students to have a voice in what the project may be. Students are active participants from the start. They become engaged in determining whether there is a real community need, and then have a voice in choosing how to meet that need. When students have an active role, their enthusiasm grows, their investment in the project grows, and real learning takes place.

**It must be fun to actually grow native plants from seeds and blog about them, like students in Battle Creek did. How do people apply for the mini-grants?**

Ginny: The application process is mildly competitive! Since the mission of our program is to get teachers using the service-learning methodology we don’t want to discourage teachers from trying a service-learning project with their students. Once the applications are received we do send them out to raters who give us feed back on several criteria (youth voice, genuine community need, effective time line, realistic budget, etc.). The raters are persons who have some level of expertise in service-learning—college professors, people from the National Youth Leadership Council and members of the Saint Paul Service-Learning Council.

Bev: We also encourage students to be a part of the grant application process, as a vital component in service-learning is that students have a voice in the process from beginning to end. Each year we also have secondary level students who write and submit proposals, and have been leaders in carrying out the projects they plan. The service-learning team takes all comments under consideration and makes the final decision.

**We sometimes hear that schools are strapped for time and money. Was it difficult to find schools and/or teachers to collaborate with? Or are educators eager to get out of the classroom and do things like fight erosion and hunger out in the community?**

Ginny: I think that teachers today are more strapped for time than money. Although most principals and teachers are excited about the $500 mini-grants, it is the time that hampers them most. It’s a challenge to convince teachers that the extra time they may have to spend to create a quality service-learning experience for their students will be worth the effort. With all the emphasis on testing, they are fearful to take time away from ‘teaching to the test’. There are some great statistics that now show that service-learning does speak to academic improvement and improved civic engagement. There have always been anecdotal information, but some hard facts are now being recorded. This kind of information is exactly what the service-learning field needs. We all know it works; we just need proof so administration will support the effort.

Bev: We’ve found that doing service-learning doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money. Our mini grants enable teachers to pay for transportation and supplies that may be needed to complete the project. Some projects don’t require that students even leave their site. Perhaps the service they’re engaging in will benefit their school community. A project’s scope can be as narrow as their school grounds or it can be global! Students at French Immersion learned about literacy issues in French speaking countries in Africa. They collected, sorted, and donated books to the BOOKS for AFRICA organization which is only a mile or so from their school. In their grant they stated that the project integrated their social studies theme of global connections and understanding as they researched countries and their history, economics, education system and diversity.

Conversely, students at Highland Park Junior High are studying global warming issues, and plan to raise funds to buy a bike rack for their school—to encourage students to ride their bikes to decrease the use of fossil fuels.

**There are four of you; this is a good number. What role does each of you play in the process of setting up/coordinating(?) these grants? Be honest, have any of you ever referred to yourselves as the Fantastic Four?**

Kia: Playing according to the fantastic four each of us has skills and experience from a number of various areas.

Ginny: We are the Fabulous Four! But wish we were the Fabulous Five, Six or even Seven at times. Because there are only four of us and 70 schools within the district we each take leadership roles. For instance we have the mini-grants, and the three other major grants that we wrote and also are involved in trainings, conferences, etc.

Bev: We call ourselves the SLRPS (slurps, ha ha) as in service-learning resource program.

**What are your program plans for the next year?**

Kia: We are working to get ready for the National Service-Learning Conference in April. And we’re looking forward to the next round.

Bev: Our focus for 2008 is to increase the numbers of teachers who are trained in service-learning. We’d also like to have mentor teachers in schools who would share resources on service-learning, and be a support to new practitioners.

_For more information about St. Paul Public Schools Community Education Service Learning Program, visit www.service-learning.spps.org_

_For more information about Service Learning in general, visit the Learn and Serve Clearinghouse at http://www.servicelearning.org_