"It's service, but is it learning?"

"Restore natural habitat. Learn how to sail in the San Juans. Increase recycling. Help the poor through food and clothing drives.South Whidbey School District students are doing all these things and more, but are they really learning anything through all this service learning, as educators label it?That was the crux of a brief school board discussion initiated by board member Jim Adsley at the Nov. 27 regular meeting. His questioning was prompted by a presentation by Greg Willis, middle school principal, and Susie Richards, a middle school teacher. They had announced plans to apply for a three-year grant that would provide more money for the school's students to do more service learning. Richards said there's an 80 percent chance the school will receive the grant.Adsley was obviously trying not to sound like the Grinch who panned public service. But he questioned if service learning takes too much time away from the classroom.Students are under tremendous learning pressure now, Adsley said, pointing out that South Whidbey students are testing at levels below what the state will require in 2008 for high school graduation. We've got to see the kids through certain things, he said. It (service learning) is valuable, but is it directly related?Richards replied by describing service learning as enhanced education, an idea endorsed by principal Willis. Willis said youths today are sometimes criticized as self-centered, a problem which service learning addresses. Outside projects also create excitement and motivation, Willis said. It's an awesome thing to see.Langley Middle School had included service learning in its curriculum for five years, but it will be further emphasized if the new grant is achieved. This particular grant can take us to a different level, Willis said.Board member Bob Riggs asked about service learning's application to real life. Willis responded that such education teaches problem solving skills which the students take back to the classroom. Our sense is it will increase the achievement level, he said. However, Willis also pointed out that while there is a lot of literature on the benefits of service learning, he has come across little hard research to prove it enhances basic classroom skills.Richards said service learning projects get kids interested in school. Kids I get very little work out of are so engaged (in service learning), she said.Willis added, If it's something they're interested in, the motivation seems to come with it. Citing such programs as sailing and collecting donations to the Salvation Army, he said students learn there isn't anything they can't do.The board approved the proposal to apply for the grant which, if received, will result in more service learning programs in the middle school.Before the meeting ended, Adsley questioned another pillar of modern education -- student fund-raising campaigns for athletics, field trips, computer equipment and a host of other good causes.Families are bombarded to support some sort of fund-raising effort, Adsley said, pointing out that it's particularly hard on families with more than one child in the school district.On this question, Adsley found more support. I share your concern, said Willis. It's a larger conversation we all need to have -- that's a huge question.Martin Laster, superintendent of schools, concurred. He said building secretaries have already met to try to coordinate fund-raising activities, but more needs to be done. It's a general overall concern, he said.Also at the November meeting, the school board ratified a new contract with the teachers' union. Scott Mauk, union president, said the two sides worked together to solve problems in a process he described as very collaborative. "

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