Advocating for a Change

Suppose you’ve been given five million dollars.

Even better, you get to control the sum with the help of 29 of your best friends, and you’re eighteen years old. For many people, this may sound like a dream. Yet, for thirty of us known as the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, this dreams pales in comparison to real life. In January 2010, I was chosen to serve on the board along with 29 other youth—ages 17 to 21, from across the United States and Canada. As a whole, we formed the only youth board in the continent sponsored by a global corporation—State Farm.

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Like many, as I began my high school career, the term “service-learning” barely existed in my vocabulary, and the status of America’s education system barely registered in my mind. However, as I became involved in my school and community, I learned how State Farm aimed to impact education and how I could become involved in impacting communities across the country. After becoming involved in several State Farm Youth Summits—such as “The Power of the Promise” and “Youth Voice”, two drop-out focused conferences, I began understanding that the status of America’s education was truly a plaguing problem, which needed to be addressed. Through my high school career, I heard how desolate America was becoming, especially from our own President. In his speech “What’s Possible for Our Children”, President Barrack Obama explains how the current economy suffers from our educational system and how drop put rates effect the American public: In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are.

By 12th grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world. And we now have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation in the world (Obama 2009). Obama’s speech outlines the troubling truth of the American education system, and asserts that many of America’s educational problems need to be fixed. As a solution, several corporations, businesses, and government officials began developing education initiatives, such as incorporating service-learning into classrooms. While these initiatives are especially targeted towards at-risk schools, service-learning serves as an overall answer to America’s education crisis.

Though Iowa City’s schools are not as at risk as others, where graduation rates falter below 20% (Dillard, 2011) , Iowa City, one of three literary cities in the world, serves as a role model to other areas of the Unites States. As a role model, The Iowa City Community School District should incorporate service-learning into all classrooms in order to help improve dropout rates as well as improve student morale and showcase how service-learning can help progress America. Over the past twenty-five years, the term service-learning erupted in the world of education, forcing itself into the reconstruction. The term “service-learning” was coined by educators Robert Sigmon and William Ramsey in 1960, as they sought a term that described the combination of conscious educational growth with the accomplishment of certain tasks that met genuine human needs (Frasco, 2003). In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service and brought the full range of domestic community service programs under the umbrella of one central organization (“Americorps: History, legislation,,” 2008).

From these organizations, Youth Service America developed, establishing one of the first organizations to promote service-learning. To YSA, service-learning is a multi-tiered system incorporating a “teaching and learning strategy integrating meaningful community service with academic study and reflective practice to enrich learning, build civic engagement, and strengthen communities.. Service-learning breathes energy into education, giving it the strength to break through the walls of the classroom to bring learning out into the community” (“Youth service america,” 2010). In 2006, State Farm Companies furthered their partnership with YSA by forming the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, a board of 30 youth charged with the mission of granting five million dollars to service-learning projects across the United States and Canada.

From the board, State Farm developed their own criteria of school based service-learning: “a teaching approach integrating service to the community with classroom curriculum through a hands-on combination” (Payne, 2011) based on YSA’s eight elements of service-learning: youth voice, meaningful service, systemic change, K-12 curriculum, partnerships, reflection, evaluation, and celebration. By integrating all eight elements, a system of education reform developed—a method that emphasizes learning in the classroom, rather than simply teaching. The new wave of education reform sought results—proof that students were actually retaining information and experiencing their education, not passively “absorbing” it. As a board member, I was able to see this change first hand. In June of 2011, I traveled to Orlando, FL.

, for the SFYAB 5-year reunion. For the reunion, over one hundred SFYAB alumni met to help the Boys and Girls Club of Orlando create a multi-purpose field, incorporating their summer classes with hands-on activity. By helping students in a service-learning project, I was no longer simply providing the resources for service-learning; I was experiencing service-learning. I learned how students felt about their project, saw how they were learning the material and applying it to real life, and felt the change that service-learning creates. By experiencing this change, I realized how important it is to change America’s education—especially through service-learning.

As I continue my education career at Iowa City, my desire to see service-learning flourish throughout America continues. On September 16, 2008, Iowa City unveiled its formal application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to designate Iowa City the world’s second city of Literature. On November 20, 2009, UNESCO designated Iowa City the world’s third City of Literature, making it a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (“The city of,” 2010). In 1997, Utne Reader ranked Iowa City eighth in its 1997 survey of “America’s 10 Most Enlightened Towns” (Iowa City, 2008). According to the Iowa City Community School District’s website, the district serves approximately 11,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, with over twenty-four schools, making it the fifth largest district in the state of Iowa (2010). Over the past few years, Iowa City’s drops out ratings have annually doubled, mimicking the increasing trend of drop outs in America.

By incorporating service-learning into all of their schools, the Iowa City School District will not only help combat their rising dropout rates, but showcase how service-learning works due to their reputation and commodities. By integrating service-learning into classrooms, students will learn how their curriculum relates to the real world. General Colin Powell, chair founder of America’s Promise, states, “Service-learning fosters interest in young people by tying what they are learning in the classroom community service, and answers the age-old question, “Why do I need to know this?”‘ (Powell, 2011). By taking part in a project which includes the application of the material learned in class, students see first-hand how their education will help them in the future and why they need to learn the material. In Orlando, I watched as students applied their math skills to plan out the design of a soccer field, and watched students create a landscape plan based on what they had learned in their science classes. By using these concepts in real life, the students were not only experiencing how they are useful in everyday life, but learning the material thoroughly.

Even more, students become invested as they become vital members and leaders of their education. Instead of simply retaining their education, students become active participants in their education. Alex Wirth, SFYAB member and Council Chair on YSA expressed how he has seen student become involved in their own education: “Through my work with YSA and the YAB, I have seen students explore opportunities they never knew were possible. Instead of sitting in a classroom where it’s easy to lose concentration, or easy to fail into the feeling of a robot, students are given a chance to participate, as they are actually doing the work. They have to give an effort—that way, the emphasis of education shifts from teaching to learning” (Wirth, 2011). By implementing service-learning courses into their schools, ICCSD students would be given a chance to apply their curriculum to everyday life, and the chance to take ownership of their education.

Through these methods, students would no longer just be students—rather, they would be their own leaders, and would be in control of their own education. In “Learning In Deed: The Power of service-learning for American schools”, a comprehensive study showed that when service-learning is explicitly connected to curriculum, young people make gains on achievement tests, complete their homework more often, and increase their grade point averages. Furthermore, service-learning is associated with both increased attendance and reduced dropout rates (2009). Not only would this help increase participation in education and outcomes, but service-learning would also provide students with skills and opportunities outside the classroom. Through service-learning, students address community needs while strengthening their academic performance.

They also learn civic responsibility and develop meaningful leadership skills in the workplace. Service-learning provides opportunity for growth and increased performance in schools, however, many remain skeptical of how service-learning helps promote educational excellence and involvement. First, several oppose service-learning because they believe that service-learning “grows from mixed motives” (Eby 1998), meaning that the effort students put into service is not completely genuine, as they are forced to participate at school. While the concern holds validity, many students find that once they are involved in a project, the passion for service develops. In the “Learning In Deed” study, several students reported that after they became involved in the project, they began having fun in the classroom, and learned to enjoy the work they were doing. Although the service may not be completely voluntary, students who are enrolled in service-learning courses at school still relish in the outcomes of a project, including simple enjoyment and education benefits.

Some also believe that service-learning “teaches a false understanding of need as well as a false understanding of response to a need” (Eby 1998). Even though some projects go out of their way to find a need in the community, most service projects incorporate a local problem to analyze and address, such as the Boys and Girls Club. While having a multi-purpose field may not have been the most crucial need in America, the space provides for physical activity—a means of exercise for the children of the area. By addressing needs such as these, students analyze their own community and find a way to improve it locally. By providing a solution through a project, students do not simply understand the project and how to help, but they actually solve the problem. These skills help them understand how they can be effective leaders and supporters of their own communities.

The ICCSD contains several opportunities fort service-learning connection, due to the presence of the University of Iowa, where service is ever-present, and through community and global partners. While some teachers may be inexperienced with service-learning, every teacher should try to implement some sort of project in their classroom. While some believe that this may stray from the state based curriculum, service-learning ties directly into the curriculum, allowing students a chance to fully understand their education by getting their hands in the work. Incorporating service-learning is never a challenge: through the help of global service-learning partners, such as SFYAB, YSA, and America’s Promise, schools can use expert written service-learning curriculum. Additionally, each partnership has their own grant process, where student and teachers can apply for money to implement their service-learning project, from beginning projects to more extensive projects which may require up to $100,000 to complete. Because of these global partners, there are also local partners which support service-learning.

In the Iowa City area, several businesses and even the University support service-learning, and are willing to provide materials for projects. By implementing service-learning into their schools, the ICCSD would strengthen their ties with the community—using partners to help strengthen education and the community. In present day America, everyday problems become more and more troubling. With a war overseas and an economic recession, many forget that the education issue exists. However, in order to help America’s domestic problems, education must be fixed.

Because of the foreign problems, service-learning has not yet received the attention and respect it deserves. At the 2011 Service-Learning Conference, Kathy Havens Payne, State Farm VP and leader on service-learning, explained that “The time is now” to stand up for our future—to ensure that the best education will be made possible, and that youth have a voice in the future of America (2011). Service-learning is no longer a mysterious term, but an experience that can help push America into a new light. For the Iowa City area, poverty and dropout rates may not be of immediate concern, but as an affluent area with respect and attention, can show how service-learning works and why more schools should use the technique. Instead of allowing the rest of the country to solve the issue, and instead of allowing dropout rates to rise, the ICCSD should make a change: implement service-learning into all classrooms, and speak for the magic that takes place in the experience.