How to reduce student dropout rates: link volunteering to studies

The use of 'service learning,' unlike general volunteering, connects good deeds to academic work. Students engage the real world, and stay in school.

Volunteering is up in America, even in (perhaps because of) hard times.

Last year, 63.4 million people offered their services gratis – 1.5 million more than in 2008. Volunteering is helping to keep the elderly in their homes, for instance, and it can also keep kids in school.

That has been the experience of John Cruz, a school superintendent in California’s Central Valley. After 10 years, he’s learned that a structured approach to volunteering, called “service learning,” prevents kids from dropping out of school in his rural grape-growing district.

Mr. Cruz starts children volunteering early. In elementary school, he has them tend the school garden and hatch trout for the depleted population in the San Joaquin River. In high school, they help immigrants study for citizenship tests.

This sounds like generic community service, but it’s a cousin that’s far more structured. Service learning weaves volunteering with specific academic instruction. Students reflect on a project, not just check it off on their to-do list.

Even as more public schools offer community service (68 percent of K-12 versus 64 percent in 1999), fewer are involved in service learning (a quarter of schools, down from one-third a decade ago), according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Yet research shows service learning is a promising strategy for dropout prevention. Cruz, who leads the Fowler Unified School District, can attest to that. His award-winning program – combined with other supports for struggling students – has produced a stellar attendance rate of 97 percent and a dropout rate of less than 1 percent, plus improved academic performance.

In comparison, about 1 in 3 kids who start ninth grade in Fresno County (where Cruz’s district is located) fails to graduate four years later. Cruz says his district is similar to the surrounding area in terms of ethnic makeup (75 percent Hispanic) and income (from very low to middle class).

Some service projects in his district last just two weeks; others, a full semester. With the help of specially trained teachers, students research and choose their projects and then build teams to carry them out.

Principals may not gravitate toward service learning, which is admittedly detailed. They may see it mainly as a way to enhance student civic awareness – perhaps not worth the effort. It’s far more than that. It bridges schoolwork to the real world and keeps students engaged in learning, all the way to graduation day.

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