In the summer of 2004, a team of teachers and administrators from the Perry Public Schools met to discuss the possibility of offering a service-learning course at the high school. The idea was to create a course that provided students with an opportunity to apply the social studies knowledge that they have learned in hopes of instilling within them the skills necessary for active and effective citizenship. After researching similar programs in Northeast Ohio and determining best practices, teachers were selected, a curriculum was written, and the task of lining up partner agencies began. The results have exceeded all expectations. Not only have students in the program become more aware of the problems facing their community, they have built connections with isolated segments of the community and became agents for change themselves.
The Perry Service Learning (PSL) program began during the fall semester of the 2005-2006 school year. Forty seniors enrolled in the course, which combined a rigorous social issues curriculum with on the job learning to promote social involvement in the community. Students in the PSL program volunteer five hours per week for approved agency, organization, or government office positions. The volunteer experiences enable students to make connections to the topics they study in the classroom. Moreover, an online component of the course requires students to reflect on their service experiences via discussion boards, blogs, and interactive chats with the instructors.
The PSL program provided the surrounding communities of Lake, Geauga, and Cuyahoga counties with over 2,500 hours of volunteer service during the first semester of the 2005-2006 school year. Initially there was some concern that the school would not be able to find enough partner agencies willing to sponsor student volunteers. However, it became apparent to the instructors that there was a genuine need for volunteers when they began lining up partner agencies prior to the school year. Within a few weeks time, 23 organizations enthusiastically jumped on board (many requesting 2-5 students). The ease with which the volunteer opportunities presented themselves inspired the instructors to shoot for doubling the number of students involved in the program next year.
Although the numbers of volunteer hours accumulated and agencies helped are impressive, they tell just a small part of the success of the PSL program. The teachers and administrators involved in organizing the program knew that hands-on service experiences would be meaningful, but few anticipated the life-altering implications of the program.
One student who planned on majoring in fashion merchandising in college, decided that she could better use her talents and skills in the field of nursing after volunteering at Hospice. Another student who wanted to be an engineer because he liked math decided to focus his energies on biomedical engineering after working with children in a special needs school. At least a dozen of the students in the PSL program have made arrangements to continue volunteering with their partner organization after the class ends.
Perhaps more than anything, the PSL program has empowered students to be agents of change in the community. Prior to taking the course many students had a sense of helplessness when discussing problems such a poverty, health care, and education. Through their service experiences, PSL students can better empathize with the victims of these contemporary social issues. Working side-by-side with dedicated individuals leading the fight against social injustice has inspired students to become more active citizens themselves. Hereafter, students who went through the PSL program will no longer shrug off community issues as unsolvable. Instead, the PSL program has provided them with the tools to envision themselves as part of the solution.