Students Think Outside the Book

Julee Newberger
March 20, 2000

If you visit the Lincoln Memorial today, you'll find a mini-museum that celebrates the monument as a gathering place for Americans celebrating—and fighting for—their civil rights. You'll also find some writing on the wall that commemorates a group of high school students who changed one of Washington, D.C.'s most-visited monuments, then turned their Arizona high school into a model for innovative service-learning programs across the country.

Back in 1989, the mini-museum did not exist. That's when John Calvin's history students from Scottsdale, Arizona's Saguaro High School visited the Memorial on a class trip, and they had a few questions: Shouldn't the Memorial be remembered for the protests and ceremonies that had taken place there throughout its history? And shouldn't there be a marker for the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to half a million freedom marchers in 1963?

When they returned to Arizona, they decided to lobby their representatives in Congress and raise the money for a plaque on the steps of the Memorial to commemorate the "I Have a Dream" speech. Calvin told them he would support their efforts, but they would have to do the work themselves. "They would have to learn how to speak, write, compromise and bargain," Calvin says.

The students learned that the National Park Service was planning to improve visitor facilities, and suggested that their idea for a mini-museum become part of the renovations. And they asked to help in its design.

They started with a penny drive that reached across the country, raising $62,000 of the $350,000 needed for the construction. After knocking on doors at Capitol Hill, they secured the rest of the money through Congressional appropriation.

On Sept. 23, 1994, the students helped to dedicate a museum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They had a taste of success, but they were not finished yet. They believed other students would benefit from projects that would allow them to use their skills to solve problems in their community and beyond. Together with Calvin, they created the first service-learning class at Saguaro High School.

Service-learning is a marriage between community service and classroom learning. The idea is that students will learn better and become better citizens if they engage in community service that ties in to their academic curriculum. Educators began to incorporate service-learning into classes in the early 1970s, although the concept stretches back to the early 20th century.

Today, any student at Saguaro High School can take Calvin's class for up to four years, for credit. There is no homework, no tests, and the students don't sit in rows. Students identify community needs and address them through their own hands-on learning projects.

Ashley Cassidy, 16, tutored kids at the nearby elementary school, practicing skills she hopes to use in the future. "The benefit," Cassidy says, "is that I don't have to wait to use these skills."

Active Winners
In 1999, the National Youth Leadership Center at Saguaro High School was named among 70 high schools by the President as the top service-learning centers in the country, chosen to spread the word about the program to kids in other schools.

"We not only identify schools, but create a system in which they will be 'active winners,'" says Kathy Kretman, coordinator of the National Service-Learning Leader Schools Program for the Corporation of National Service

Saguaro is serving as a model for other schools, including Scottsdale's Coronado High School. John Baird, a former student of Calvin's, is the director of the Coronado's LINKS program, through which kids receive academic credit for benefiting the community. "High school kids should do more than compete at football and baseball," Baird says, "they should collaborate."

Together with Coronado, Saguaro students have taken on stewardship of a 500-acre park in Tempe, helping to restore it to its natural state. The park restoration project is just one of the community activities that keeps students productive and busy. Says Stephanie Behrends, a junior at Coronado, "You don't have time to get involved in negative things that can steer you off course."

Saguaro students have also helped to develop a service learning program in other schools like Holbrook High School, which borders two Indian reservations—a three-hour drive from Scottsdale. Even older kids are learning from the high-schoolers: Saguaro students have presented workshops in youth leadership at local community colleges, Arizona State University and the Arizona Close-Up Conference.

In response to the well-publicized school shootings last year, Saguaro students created a national anti-violence campaign using the columbine—Colorado's state flower—as a symbol for peace. The campaign won the support of local educators and administrators, in addition to a proclamation from the Mayor of Scottsdale. Says Andrea Limpert, a senior at Saguaro, "We wanted to say, look, there may be violence, but look at what these students are doing to try and stop it from happening."

The anti-violence campaign will culminate in a Youth Stand Up rally that students hope will become a major pop music concert. Already, comedian David Spade has agreed to host. The students hope to inspire a national youth movement—a topic they discussed with legislators during a visit to their March, 2000 visit to the Capitol.

Why Learn and Serve?
Calvin believes that service learning helps to create a positive educational environment in which all kids can succeed in and out of the classroom. "It gives students an outlet, a chance to be outstanding," he says. "Everybody fits in and belongs."

The trend is growing: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of high school students involved in this type of program has increased dramatically between 1984 and 1997, from just over 80,000 to nearly 3 million students. About a third of public schools report service learning as part of their curriculum, including nearly half of all high schools. Most schools find that the program builds stronger bonds among students, and between the school and the community.

Calvin says the biggest challenges to creating and maintaining such programs come from the adults, not the kids. Some worry that this is a departure from strict academic learning—not to mention a lot of work for adults. "Adults think that they should be the engine," Calvin says, "but they should be the pull-cart."

Sixteen-year-old Dragan Daubenmier agrees that the program has had a big impact on his experience in school: "Without this program, the opportunity for kids to help their school and community would be slim," Daubenmier says.

Says Angela McColloh, a freshman at Saguaro, "You go to bed knowing that you've done something well, and that pushes you farther toward your future."

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Julee Newberger is the former assistant managing editor of Connect for Kids.