'A serious bunch of roughnecks' can help

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jeff, a college freshman, visits a state prison once a week to tutor inmates in reading and math. Nancy, a high school junior, drops in on an elderly woman to chat or help her with errands.

And Peter, a high school senior, counsels kids his own age about drinking -- a problem he himself has overcome.

These three are part of a growing program called service-learning.

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The idea is a simple one -- let students augment their regular studies with active participation in community service, or field education, for which they receive academic credit. Regardless of the job, all participants share a common goal -- to learn through experience.

In the past decade, service-learning programs in various areas of the country have scored some impressive results, especially with alienated and unmotivated students who find new interest in schoolwork and jobs, and develop a better sense of self-worth. With a school dropout rate of 23 percent, such progress is significant.

A 1979 survey by the National Center for Service Learning in Washington, D.C. , shows that 15 percent of all high schools in the United States offer curriculum-related service programs involving over 320,000 students.

Academic credit is given by 64 percent of these schools for the average five hours per week students devote to their volunteer work. The center estimates that students contribute $140 million annually in services which communities might otherwise have to hire or do without.

While there are no statistics for colleges, many throughout the United States have some sort of community service program. At Harvard University, for example , the Phillips Brooks House involves roughly 250 students in a variety of counseling and social-action groups.

Service-learning offers far more than a casual, out-of-class experience. For some, it is a means of career exploration. Michele Brierre, a senior majoring in sociology at Boston University, says her volunteer experience got her interested in hospital administration.

In a course that required fieldwork with elderly people, she worked in a hospital as a visitor and aide. This led her to an internship in the same field for a full semester and reinforced her interest in hospital work with the elderly.

"It was a concrete, good experience," she recalls. "It shed light on career possibilities. And I learned a lot about myself."

For others, service-learning offers fresh inspiration in their studies and life goals. And for still others, it develops a higher sense of self-worth and importance, which are basic to learning.

A recent study by the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, indicates overwhelmingly the positive effects on students' self-evaluation and development of responsibility.

Over 85 percent of the students questioned agreed that, through their volunteer experiences, their self-motivation amd sense of usefulness increased. They grew more willing to take risks, to accept "responsibility to the group or class," and "accept the consequences" of their own actions.

They also learned more about their communities, career resources, and communication skills. Seventy-seven percent learned "much more" through service programs, compared with regular classes.

Proponents of service-learning say they are not trying to replace the three R's with field experience and volunteer work. What they advocate is enhancing the regular curriculum with an active service program.

"Service-learning is a means whereby the learner, by serving others, expands personal potential through intellectual and emotional growth," wrote Robert J. Nash and Kenneth P. Saurman, professors at the College of Education and Social Services of the University of Vermont."It stresses wholeness, commitment, and service to others."

Jimmy, a Denver high schooler who counsels emotionally disturbed kids, says about his service project: "It made me want to learn to be somebody. It felt good to help some kid who is as messed up as I was."

A growing benefit of these programs is their use in schools and programs for troubled young people nd juvenile offenders.

In 1978, the National Center for Service Learning funded a service-learning project at the Partners School in Denver in which teachers worked individually with status offenders -- young people who had not committed a felony but were referred to the school by local courts.

These young people combined classroom study with responsible community service. The goal was to improve academic effort and achievement, develop better work habits, and encourage more positive attitudes not only toward themselves but toward others.

After 1 1/2 years, attendance went from 69 percent to 86.6 percent, and recidivism dropped 25 percent.

Chris, a student in a similar program in New York City, offered his perspective on such an experience: "We proved a bunch of roughnecks, who had never acted serious about anything, can really do something serious for themselves if they try. I think a lot of us became more serious about ourselves as a result."

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