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.


Summer Abroad Programs for High School Students (April, 2012) 
Once again, WKCD has compiled a directory of international summer programs with which we are familiar—programs that welcome high school students and combine volunteer work, cultural and language immersion. This directory is not intended to be exhaustive; it lists programs with which we are familiar and have strong track records. Also, have not included programs where language study or touring are the primary focus. The emphasis here is on summer abroad programs that emphasize service.

Students Train as Interpreters, with Benefits for All Involved (October 2012) 
With 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.

Dispelling Stereotypes, NYC Youth Learn and Work in Africa (October, 2011)
Young people from two of the highest-poverty areas of New York City—Harlem and the Bronx—recently overturned stereotypes about themselves and others by traveling to Africa to learn, work, and serve those in need. Sponsored by two separate afterschool and summer programs for youth and headed to different countries, Ghana and Mali, the teenagers in both groups saw their understanding and perspectives change markedly because of their undertaking. The Bronx youth, who traveled to Mali, also helped build an elementary school.

Small Wonders: Kambi ya Simba, Six Years Later (August 2011)
Six years ago, WKCD ’s Barbara Cervone worked with students in a rural village in Tanzania to capture daily life there. Their book, In Our Village: Kambi ya Simba Through the Eyes of Its Youth (Next Generation Press, 2006) has sold close to 10,000 copies, provided scholarship funds for over a dozen students to further their education, and spawned an international movement of teachers and students creating their own “In Our Global Village” books as part of an international service learning movement. High school students at one Indianapolis high school spent a semester studying Tanzania, then traveled there over the summer volunteering in a local orphanage and visiting with the students in Kambi ya Simba.

Summer Abroad Programs for High School Students that Combine Service-Learning (March 2011) 
Summer study and work in foreign countries is always eye opening, especially for teenagers who have stayed close to home. Often, these experiences are life changing. For high school students looking to spend a summer abroad, the options abound: home stays, language classes, volunteer work, internships, student exchanges, and rugged adventures. Scholarships are often available. Here is this year’s WKCD directory of proven programs.

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.

“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.

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.

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?

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.

Forget H&R Block: Louisiana Students Handle Taxes for Community | E. Iberville, LA (June 2009)
Tax time. Those two little words evoke stress and anxiety for most adults. But for Kristen Smith, a 15-year-old tenth grader at East Iberville High School in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, the months before—and after—April 15 are exciting. “I wouldn’t have changed the experience for anything,” she says. Smith, with seven of her classmates, signed up to become a volunteer income tax assistant. She underwent extensive training in tax law and preparation, and got officially certified with the IRS to help people in her community with their income taxes.

“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.

Improving the Lives of Stray and Homeless Animals Worldwide (March 2009) 
“SPOT Globally is a nonprofit that was established less than a year ago,” explains its founder, Ayna Agarwal, a 16-year-old New Jersey high school. “It connects developing nations all over the world, including Thailand, Italy, South Africa, Philippines, Nepal, Mexico, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Cook Islands, and India. We dedicate our work to really improving the lives of stray and homeless animals. There are a lot of adults involved, but it’s the youth that are actually running the entire program.”

“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.

The Plight of Day Laborers | Norwalk, CT (August 2008)
For the past several years, Youth Activists of the Peace Project at Brien McMahon HIgh School in Norwalk, Connecticut have been working to help improve conditions for local day laborers, including helping sponsor health and wage clinics.

Girls Helping Girls | Fremont, CA (June 2008)
At age 15, Sejal Hathi of Fremont, California founded an international nonprofit called Girls Helping Girls. Hathi, now 16 and finishing her junior in high school, just launched Sisters for Peace Network.

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.

Turn Your World Around | Scarsdale, NY (March 2008)
Tara Suri founded H.O.P.E. (Helping Orphans Pursue Education), an organization dedicated to raising funds for orphanages in India and Sudan, when she was just 13. Now a junior, the 17 year-old has expanded her mission to include bringing laptops to children in the developing world.

“Hometown History” | Skowhegan, ME (November 2007)
 For ten years, a team of teachers at Skowhegan Middle School in Skowhegan, Maine has inspired their students to become local historians. Students have published in-depth research and historic photos, they have produced videos and essays, and they have created a website to display their huge body of work. They are now putting the finishing touches on a historic walking tour of Skowhegan.

“Stayin’ Alive” | Melbourne, FL (November 2007)
When Allyson Brown first learned about malaria as a high school junior, she was shocked to learn that the mosquito-borne disease is the number one threat to children in Africa. In the face of such a devastating—but entirely preventable—global killer Brown wondered, “What can one person do?”

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.

"Get Outta My Face" | Bend, OR (August 2007)
Ten Oregon teens, tired of being the fattest and most unfit generation ever, have taken matters in their own hands and launched a nonprofit organization and website dedicated to combating the fast food, big marketing, and conventional media that target youth. Using the latest digital technologies, they are telling food industry advertisers, "Get Outta My Face," and outta our way.

“Pass It On” | New Haven, CT (November 2007)
For the past five years, students in the Four Corners course at Common Ground Charter High School have been mapping the histories of four diverse New Haven neighborhoods—neighborhoods the students live in and know well. The project allows them to take what they are experts in and link it to U.S. History content and writing skills. Now, the students are publishing their findings on a new website.

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)
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.

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.

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.

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.

Moving to the Head of the Class (September 2001)
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.

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 Food Project.

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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