Service Learning: Powerful Learning with Public Purpose


WKCD was born with a fierce determination to change the public conversation about adolescent learning and accomplishment. Too often we hear how “kids today” simply don’t make the grade. They don’t measure up on standardized tests; they are disrespectful; they’re too grown up or not grown up enough. When teens do manage to wrest praise from adults, it is often for what they don’t do—for toeing the line—rather than for the positive things they can do. As a New York high school principal put it: “If we do not value the potential contributions of our nation’s roughly 45 million teenagers, how will they ever value themselves? If we do not listen to them, why should they listen to us?”
Day in and out, WKCD aims to spread a more capacious view of  “what kids can do” when given the opportunities and supports they deserve—a vision that makes room for real-world problem solving, teamwork, character and citizenship, learning from mistakes, creativity, social justice, and contribution.

Service learning, at its best, provides a wealth of exemplars of the sort of powerful learning with public purpose that WKCD champions. Below is a directory of feature stories about service learning produced by WKCD over the years.


In Good Hands: Youth in Action (December 2012) If you wonder whether we're in good hands when it comes to the rising generation, WKCD's daily bulletin, "Kids on the Wire," sends a resounding "Yes!" Here we offer a tiny glimpse of our nation's youth in action--stories we've turned up in just the past five weeks, from when Superstorm Sandy sent a group of New Jersey students into high gear, creating a crowd-sourced map of open gas stations in the NYC-New Jersey region.

Students Train as Interpeters with Benefits for All Involved (October, 2012) The summer between high school and college poses ongoing challenges for first-generation students. Determined to counteract the well-documented "summer melt," the Young Women's Leadership Network in NYC created the Bridge to Summer program, making "college coaches," themselves first-generation college students, available to graduating high school seniors who needed attention and guidance transitioning to college nearly 18,000 students from families who speak over 80 different languages, the need for skilled interpreters has mushroomed in the Highline School District, south of Seattle. The Student Interpreter program harnesses the skills of ELL students—and immerses them in the thicket of on-the-spot interpreting, in their schools and the community. Students also gain an entree into the professional translation and interpretation job market.

Across Summer's Shaky Bridge to College Help from Other Students (September, 2012) The summer between high school and college poses ongoing challenges for first-generation students. Determined to counteract the well-documented "summer melt," the Young Women's Leadership Network in NYC created the Bridge to Summer program, making "college coaches," themselves first-generation college students, available to graduating high school seniors who needed attention and guidance transitioning to college

Mentoring 101(August 2011) Take one “needy” kid, add a caring adult and throw in some mutually enjoyable activities and conversation. Repeat as necessary for a year or more. Multiply this by the 18 million kids in need of mentors, and proponents believe you might have a smarter, happier, and more confident youth population in this country. As this article by youth journalists at Y-Press explains, it's not quite that simple. A companion article presents the voices of mentees, themselves.

Fighting "Summer Learning Loss": One City's Story (September 2010) This summer in Indianapolis, a two-week storytelling camp led by Y-Press teen journalists turned "summer learning loss" on its head. Youth journalist Jordan Denari offers a close up look at how she and her fellow counselors coached a group of 9- and 10-year-olds to tell the stories of their community through digital photography, audio recordings and interviews, and poetry writing. The campers left "City Stories" armed with the fundamentals of 21st-century journalism. The counselors learned about teaching, inspiration, and multiple perspectives.

Urban Teenagers Grow 25,000 Pounds of Organic Produce to Relieve Hunger (August 2010) There's an oasis a mile off of Highway 183 in east Austin, Texas, where industrial sites and waste dumps bump up against apartment complexes and humble homesteads. A handpainted sign points up a dirt road: Urban Roots. This land in a hidden curve of the Colorado River is a cultivated organic farm where youth work the soil from 8 am to 3 pm, learn the principles of sustainable agriculture, grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers, and share their produce with people in poverty. The interns earn a stipend of $40 a day for working seven hours a day, but money isn't their first motivation.

Boyle Heights Through the Eyes of its Youth (July 2010) What can high school students in an urban neighborhood on the East Side of Los Angeles learn from young people almost 10,000 miles away, in a rural village in Tanzania? Plenty. A transformative experience began for a group of Roosevelt High School teenagers when Steve Mereu, their teacher at the School of Law and Government, introduced his senior class to a WKCD photo essay book in which East African youth documented their everyday lives.Mereu and his students were joining an extraordinary grass-roots movement of teachers and students across the globe to show their communities—from Philadelphia to the smallest village in Japan—from the perspective of young people.

A ‘Dream Project’ Draws High Schoolers into College Success (June 2010) More than 75 eleventh graders fill the library at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, defying its rule of quiet with animated conversations. They huddle in small groups, led by undergraduates from the nearby University of Washington (“U-Dub’’), who are here on their weekly visit to help Ingraham students prepare for college. The undergrads sport t-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Dream Team.” They are part of the “Dream Project,” an extraordinary credit-bearing course at UW.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell: The Faces of Homelessness (March 2010) The calculus of living paycheck to paycheck in America keeps getting harder. We hear it often: Many Americans are just one or two paychecks away from being homeless. Students in Orlando, Florida—a city where violent crimes against the homeless are high—have spent two years interviewing the homeless in their community, including young people their age. They have produced a book and an extraordinary, hearbreaking video.

Worth Fighting For: Youth Activism and the Arts (March 2010) In Des Moines, Iowa, music venues are not allowed to hold all-ages music events after 9 p.m. That has not sat well with under-21 activists who have been working with city officials to change the code so that music venues are more available to local youth. Young people nationwide are following suit. In schools and local communities, they are fighting to keep arts programs alive, a difficult task in an economic recession.

“Submit Application!”: Youth Coach Their Peers Past the College-Access Potholes (February 2010) On this bitter late-December day, students are streaming into the “Student Success Center” at Bushwick Campus High School in Brooklyn. At every computer station along its walls, two or three students gather, eyes fixed on the screen as one of them punches information into the online Common Application for four-year college admissions. It’s not the winter break that these students are counting down to: College application deadlines are coming up on them fast—and they need help. Helping them are classmates who have been trained as college advisors.

Clearing the Hidden Hurdle: Filling Out the “FAFSA" (February 2010) Just a week before the Super Bowl, 100 high school students pack two rooms at the Community College of Rhode Island. On this last Sunday in January, as they huddle around computer monitors, they hope to score their own touchdown: paying for college. They have come here to navigate one of the most complicated maneuvers on the path to college: filling out the “Free Application for Student Financial Aid,” otherwise known as FASFA.

Shifting Perspectives: Youth Activism and Immigration (February 2010) For 10 years, immigration has been a contentious issue in the United States. In the early part of the decade, the Bush administration was prepared to offer mass amnesty to illegal immigrants. As governor of Texas he’d long been friendly with Mexico, and both he and then-Mexican President Vincente Fox supported a big amnesty and guest worker program. On Sept. 11, 2001, all of that changed—and so has youth activism around immigration.

Urban Youth Take Up the Cause of Healthy Eating (November 2009) “My favorite food? I like sushi, California rolls,” declares Tyler Wallace, a seventh grader. “My least favorite food, I gotta say, is macaroni and cheese.” He is taking his turn to be quizzed by classmates with a Flip video camera, answering questions about what he eats. Families at Lighthouse Community Charter School have long had trouble finding affordable and nutritious food in their low-income Oakland neighborhoods.

Rethinking School Lunch (November 2009) As their deadline drew close, teams of students from 15 Chicago public high schools worked intently on a challenge that has eluded policymakers for decades: How to make a healthy school lunch that hungry kids will eat. It could take no more than six steps to prepare. It must exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards. It had to include at least one item from a list of frozen local produce. And it could cost no more than a dollar per student.

School Gardeners Nourish New Ideas (November 2009) “Right across the street, you can get every kind of fast food you’d ever want,” says Hector, 13. “What if instead of spending our money there, we grew our own food here?” And that’s exactly what a small but growing number of students are doing in schoolyards across the country. What would happen if school gardens came back with the force they had in World War II, when policymakers and the citizen at large saw them as part of our national well being?

Youth and Health: Public Discussions, Private Decisions (October 2009) Of all the topics of interst to young people, perhaps health is the most personal. Engaging in sexual activity or substance abuse are choices one makes privately—so are decisions regarding body weight, nutrition, and depression. Youth activism on behalf of health is low. Studies find that only 8.5 percent of young adults ages 16 - 24 volunteer on health issues, versus 31 percent on educational issues and 31 percent on religious matters.

Religion, Service, and Activism: Youth and Faith (September 2009) Faith-based youth activism is a growing force in the U.S. It can be strictly evanagelistic, or it can involve reaching out to local venues like soup kitchens and summer camps. Some youth teach Sunday school or provide child care at their places of worship; others travel to distant parts of the world to lend a hand. Despite an already large following, fath-based youth activism is on the rise—thanks to social-networking technology and interfaith cooperation.

The Legacy of Cesar Chavez (June 2009) Cesar Chavez, one of the most influential and important labor organizers in U.S. history, once said, “The end of all education should surely be service to others.” As part of Chicago’s Cesar Chavez Service Learning Month, students from several Chicago high schools conducted extensive interviews with immigrants preparing for their citizenship exams.

Friday Harbor Embraces the Experience Food Project (June 2009) Cheese ravioli with homemade marinara sauce; oven-roasted lemon rosemary chicken breast and vegetable medley; chili with local ground beef and cornbread. These are just a few of the homemade lunch entrees on the menu at Friday Harbor High School. For the past year, the innovative Experience Food Project has not only changed the way students eat at this high school nestled in the San Juan Islands in Washington, but also transformed the curriculum.

“Helping People, It Just Sticks with You” (March 2009) “Our deadline is just two weeks away,” NYC Deanna Belcher tells her students. “We’ve set ourselves a huge goal: to collect one hundred and fifteen sacks of pennies—3,450 pounds.” Since 1991, teachers like Belcher and her students in more than 1,000 schools across New York City and in several other cities have joined Common Cents’ annual “Penny Harvest,” raising and donating millions for charity and planting the seeds for a lifetime of giving.

“We’ve All Learned So Much”: Service Learning in Maine Schools (February 2009) Excavating the remains of a German prisoner of war camp, hidden near a small lake. Providing Ugandan orphans portraits of themselves to have as a keepsake. Educating the public about “Shaken Baby Syndrome.” Producing a video about their hometown, Belfast. These are some of service-learning projects that are engaging K-12 students across Maine.

Youth in Action: Teens Informing Teens (Sept 2008) In a storefront on Providence’s south side, ten high school students sit down to a curriculum they won’t find in school: how to promote nonviolent social change. For the next two months, they will learn everything they can about violence prevention and workshop facilitation—and then pass on that knowledge to younger teens. It may seem a titanic task—but that’s just right for these new members of TITAN, one of several peer education programs at Youth In Action.

Youth for a Change: Audio Slideshow (May 2008) At this year’s annual National Service Learning Conference in Minneapolis, WKCD teamed up with students to document the festivities, workshops, and plenary sessions. The students roamed the 3-day event with cameras and tape recorders, as did WKCD. We then wove the photos and audio into a 7-minute montage of images and voices. Conference highlights ranged from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and youth-adult workshops to an exhibit hall that rocked with food, music, books, and hands-on activities.

Young Asians with Power unite for summer dose of writing and political awareness (September 2007) You might hear the YAWPers before you see them in the back room of Chicago’s Japanese American Citizens League on a summer afternoon. At the end of every meeting of Young Asians with Power (YAWP!), a writing workshop for Asian American youth, participants stand in a circle and holler as loud as they can: “YAAWWPP!!!” The yell is both a battle cry and an exercise in silliness.

California teens fight carcinogens in beauty products (May 2007) The average teen is exposed to about 200 chemicals a day through personal cosmetic products like eye shadow, shampoo, and deodorant. Many of these chemicals are potentially carcinogenic. Several years ago, high school students in Marin County, California began a campaign for “safe” cosmetics, spurred on by the high cancer rate in their famously wealthy community.  They have even taken their fight to the California State Legislature—and won important legislation.

The Next Generation: Miner County, South Dakota (May 2007) The inaugural edition of (July 2001) included a feature story called “Small Towns: Big Dreams,” which documented community revitalization efforts by young people in three rural towns. Five years later, WKCD brings news from one of these towns, Howard, South Dakota. Howard’s high school students remain a big part of this rural town’s renewal.

Katrina As a Classroom (September 2006) In the early sunlight in muggy New Orleans, twenty-three kids from New York City’s Urban Academy don white chemical-protection suits and facemasks. They are doing research in a whole new way: putting their bodies to work in a disaster zone, while also investigating the racial and political landscape that created it. They have a hypothesis: that individuals can—and must—build a better society.

Deaf Students Teach Restaurants to Serve with Respect (November 2005) At Minnesota North Star Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, a bilingual school with instruction in English and American Sign Language, a group of three student researchers have set their sites on the goal of making restaurants more deaf friendly. Having completed in-depth surveys with deaf customers and with a training guide for restaurant workers on the way, these students aim to make a nation-wide impact with their research.

Denver Teenagers Take Action for Social Change (September 2004)“This is the best kind of class, way better than sitting in a chair staring at the ceiling,” high school sophomore Barbara muses. At Millennium Quest High School, students conducted an environmental impact survey of a proposed highway expansion through their own inner-city neighborhood, and held a press conference to present their alternative proposals. At Skyland Community High School, students surveyed their peers to determine the emotional reasons why kids drop out or stay in school.

A Mission of Fellowship (May 2004) High school students in suburban Barrington, Rhode Island spend their school vacation on a church mission to Johns Island, South Carolina, where they repair houses along the dirt roads of this rural, African American community.

Learning How to Live: Hospice Teen Volunteers Receive More Than They Give (December 2004) Eighty-four years and a video camera separate Max, 101, and Dustin, 17. But there is not a moment's rest in their conversation. Dustin is just one of 300 young volunteers at Suncoast Hospice in Tampa, Florida, who spend their free time working with people getting ready to die, including capturing their stories on video.

Dragon Slayers, the Sequel (November 2005) In 2003, Connect for Kids (CFK) profiled on their website an all-girl firefighting and emergency medical team in Aniak, Alaska, called the "Dragon Slayers." Since then, the Aniak girls have been growing up, and so has the program. CFK's reporter Holly St. Lifer recently revisited the group; here we present her sequel. Angels in the Snow (March 2003)
For most teens, the decision to run into a burning building could be a costly one—but not for the Dragon Slayers, an all-girl firefighting and emergency medical team in Aniak, Alaska.

Making the Dollars Matter: Young Philanthropists Take Up the Business of Change (November 2002) PDF version Two California groups—the Youth Leadership Institute and the California Fund for Youth Organizing—help a new generation of grant-seekers and grant-makers effect lasting change.

Making Peace, Restoring Justice (February 2002) Three programs—Harlem’s Youth Court, City at Peace in Washington, DC, and Navajo peacekeeping circles—bring young people into dialogue with each other and their communities, resolving conflicts peacefully.

Because We Make a Difference: Youth Take Action During the Summer (September 2005) Over 600 young people gathered this summer at the National Youth Summit in Washington, DC to sharpen their leadership skills. But these were not the only teens that took action during the summer months.

Sweat Equity: Youth Spend Summer Investing in America, Despite Wall Street Woes (September 2002) In contrast to this summer’s dismal financial news, the nation’s young people built classroom computers, tested safety features in public housing developments, assisted scientists with earthquake predictions, and in myriad other ways cleaned up, helped out, and invested in their communities.

Moving to the Head of the Class (September 2001) PDF version High-school aged teachers at Providence’s Summerbridge, the Algebra Project, and a summer camp in Warren, North Carolina provide powerful role models for younger kids—and a potential teacher corps for the future.

Rich In Pride: Taylor, Nebraska Youth Carry Community into the Future (September 2004) For students in Taylor, Nebraska, summer is no time for relaxing. Instead of lying around the pool or watching TV, these students are determined to turn back the bad rap their town received in the past. Working full-time jobs, doing their share of chores around the house, and supporting the local community comprise the daily routines for these rural youths.

Sunflower Freedom Fellows Reach for the Sky in Washington, DC (September 2002) Teens from rural Sunflower, Mississippi worked at Washington institutions like the U.S. Supreme Court, Common Cause, and The Children’s Defense Fund as part of a summer internship program sponsored by the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Small Towns, Big Dreams (July 2001) PDF version In Edcouch, TX, Howard, SD, and Lubec, ME, young people breathe new life—and bring new money—into their struggling rural communities.

Common Ground (October 2001) PDF version Two disparate Boston communities grow and distribute food—and understanding—with The FoodProject.



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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator