Making the Most Out of Service

National Youth Service Day 2008

Service learning keeps students engaged and boosts graduation rates, but we need to rethink the way programs are funded, writes Shirley Sagawa.

Photo taken during National & Global Youth Service Day, April 20-22, 2007, in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Chip Feise Location Photography for Serve DC)
Photo taken during National & Global Youth Service Day, April 20-22, 2007, in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Chip Feise Location Photography for Serve DC)

April 25 marks the 19th annual Youth Service Day, now a global event that will involve thousands of local organizations. Last year, students planted one million flowers in Newark, NJ, raised money to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, created a system to provide emergency medical workers with quick access to records of elderly patients, and undertook thousands of other projects in their own communities. This year promises to be an even more successful event.

Although many Youth Service Day efforts will involve labor-intensive projects that can be completed in a few hours, many youth are involved in consequential long-term volunteering that makes a significant difference in the lives of others while teaching them important lessons.

The peer leaders involved in College Summit help build a college-going culture in their high schools, playing a vital role in the program’s ability to increase the college-going rates of low-income students dramatically. These peer leaders go to college and stay in college at a rate of 79 percent—far above the national average of less than 50 percent for their low-income peers.

Another national program, the Breakthrough Collaborative, engages high school and college students to lead summer classes for middle school students under the supervision of professional teachers. An evaluation of the program found that compared to a control group, Breakthrough students spent more time on homework, participating in extracurricular activities, and volunteering.

Many young people are engaged in locally-designed service-learning classes that connect their coursework to solving community problems. In Minnesota, for example, a group of seventh and eighth grade science and language arts students led a community-wide campaign to stop the spread of West Nile virus, including researching the disease, developing public service announcements for the local cable network, and preparing brochures and presentations on the topic. Also in Minnesota, accounting and computer students in a rural high school took over when the local Internet service provider pulled out, making wireless broadband access available to their community and working with a senior center to assist more than 400 older adults with their computer needs.

Although a growing body of research has documented the benefits of service learning, which include greater academic engagement, civic behaviors, and personal responsibility, most students don’t have this opportunity. Disadvantaged youth in particular are significantly less likely to engage in service. For middle school students, service learning is a particularly potent way to help them connect what they learn in school to important life goals—a key to reducing the dropout rate.

The federal government supports service learning through the Learn and Serve America program. This program, enacted in 1990, provides support for school and community-based service learning for students from kindergarten to college. While it has played a role in increasing the percentage of schools that offer service learning—now 32 percent—funding for the program has declined over the years, from a peak of $46 million in 1995 to $37 million in 2007.

As Congress reauthorizes the National and Community Service Act, it should expand support for service learning by reexamining Learn and Serve and creating new funds that will allow federal dollars to be leveraged for service more strategically. Most Learn and Serve America dollars are allocated by formula to state educational agencies, a policy put in place in 1990 with the view that the program would grow in size and that a formula allocation would ensure that every state built expertise in service learning within its education agency. Unfortunately, most states get about $200,000 from Learn and Serve America and make grants of less than $20,000.

With the pressures on state education agencies to comply with No Child Left Behind, the tiny service-learning grants have had a limited effect on larger education budgets and policies. Learn and Serve America could be modified to be more effective by allocating funds only to those states that develop a highly leveraged plan. New programming should also be developed, such as grants for a Summer of Service for middle schoolers, or service strategies to increase college-going. To be most effective, these programs should also allow and prioritize larger grants that will build sustainable systems.

The framework for Learn and Serve America was developed almost two decades ago and has changed little over the years. Much has been learned since then about service learning and systems change. A reexamination of federal support for youth service in all its forms is long overdue to take advantage of this powerful tool for youth development and learning.

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Shirley Sagawa

Senior Fellow