The key to keeping teens in school

Service learning tackles high dropout rates and civic disengagement.

Every day 7 thousand high school students drop out of school – and the American high school graduation rate hasn't budged for almost three decades. In an effort to jump-start those rates, General Colin Powell recently announced the development of 100 dropout prevention summits across the US.

On the heels of that step comes even more hope for reducing the number of dropouts and it includes the needed spawning of more civic engagement among young people.

Service learning is an educational technique that combines classroom learning with community service. What's critical is that it is not only key to getting more students engaged in their communities, but, according to a report released last week by Civic Enterprises, it is also a powerful tool to keep students on track to graduate from high school.

A nationally representative survey of high school students, including at-risk students, paints a hopeful picture. Eighty-two percent of all service-learning students said their view of school improved because of their service-learning classes, and 77 percent said that service learning had a big effect on motivating them to work hard. Furthermore, 64 percent of service-learning students claimed that service learning would have a fairly or very big effect on keeping them from dropping out of school.

Dropout crisis reforms combat a number of barriers – they must increase attendance, student motivation, engagement, academic performance, and create learning environments free of disruptive behavior. Research shows that service learning accomplishes each of these.

Although high-quality service-learning programs are cropping up across the nation, such programs are still unjustifiably rare. Eighty-three percent of students said that if their school offered it, they would enroll in a service-learning program. Yet only 16 percent of all students, and only 8 percent of students at low-performing schools, reported that their school offered service learning. All too often students do not have access to, or do not even know about, such programs offered by their schools.

This latest survey builds on two ground-breaking 2006 reports that jolted the nation to act on educational and civic challenges. One report showed that nearly one-third of all high school students fail to graduate with their class and almost half of all minority students drop out before graduation. Meanwhile, America's Civic Health Index showed that high school dropouts hardly participated in civic duties – declining to vote, volunteer, or advocate for reforming schools that were failing them. Addressing these twin challenges of high school dropout and civic disengagement requires comprehensive reform aimed at making school more rigorous, relevant, and engaging.

Enter service learning. As school districts, states, and the federal government debate how to best address the US dropout crisis, service-learning should be at the forefront of strategies used to raise graduation rates.

Learn and Serve America, the federal program that annually provides from $34- to $43 million in grants to K-12 schools, should target the dropout problem. All AmeriCorps volunteers who serve in disadvantaged public schools with high dropout rates should be trained as service-learning coordinators and help teachers implement high quality programs. The White House coordinating council for national and community service should charge programs across government with making service learning in schools a priority for their programs.

It wouldn't be a stretch for programs such as the National Park Service to take up that task. After all, it has 200,000 volunteers and federally supported mentoring programs at the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Dropouts want to see the connection between classroom learning and a career. Communities suffer from an absence of their civic talents. Service learning can bridge the divide between these two issues. It is an essential tool to address our nation's dropout challenge, keep students engaged in school, and prepare them for the duties of citizenship.

As Sen. Edward Kennedy put it, "We need students who graduate from high school prepared to succeed in today's global economy. We also need students who understand the value of service and of helping others – whether in their own communities or across the world."

Imagine a movement in America that focuses on turning potential dropouts into model citizens. Service learning is that movement.

John M. Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, is coauthor of the new report, "Engaged for Success." He also is coauthor of "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts" and "America's Civic Health Index."

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