Thanks to students who serve

This is a column for people who want good news about students and schools.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

All over Minnesota, students are showing remarkable creativity, ingenuity and energy to help others. Well-developed service-learning programs have huge benefits for students.

Later this month, a national conference will highlight some of the best examples of what organizers call service learning, which involves integrating community service into classroom instruction. They have issued a free invitation for anyone who wants to come for a day.

Here are a few examples of wonderful student service, gathered from district and charters throughout the state, along with research about why this is such a good idea and resources for people who want to learn more.

Peter Wieczorek, director at Northwest Passage High School, a charter school in Coon Rapids, wrote: “What we are finding is that if students view their work as problem based (trying to seek a solution for something), they are producing higher quality work and it seems to be more relevant. The work starts with a guiding question or a problem statement, “Why are fish populations in the ocean decreasing?” or “How can we assure that every vote counts in national elections?” Sometimes with project based, students are only looking at the learning targets and creating an end product that basically just answers the lower-order questions posed by the learning targets – often as a PowerPoint or some other basic/bare minimum end product. We are trying to help students move more in the direction of the deeper/higher level thinking that is involved when you try to solve a problem.”

Tony Simons, executive director of PACT Charter School in Ramsey, wrote: “PACT Charter School is a changemaker as an institution by evidence in our ‘vision statement,’ which we put into practice. ‘To develop educationally excellent, engaged citizens, who value life-long learning and are committed to making exceptional contributions to their ever-changing world.’ PACT does projects to help change the world like the ‘Pennies for Patients’ program to help cure cancer. … We also are helping change our world by advocating for and teaching positive character qualities to our children so they can be positive and engaged citizens. We cultivate an academically rigorous environment that challenges students to get involved and participate in community service projects in their community.”

A 2008 report, available at, found many benefits of service learning, including:

–Fewer discipline problems.

–Increased student attendance.

–Increased graduation rates.

–Better student attitudes toward school, including increased motivation to work hard.

The National Youth Leadership Council, a Minnesota-based group that has promoted service learning since 1983, is hosting a national conference on service learning March 30 to April 2 in Minneapolis. Students and adults will share ideas about service learning. Amy Meuers, interim CEO of NYLC, told me that the group is allowing people to attend the World Education Forum on March 30 free of change to gain a sense of what’s happening around the country and world. More information about the conference is available at

Recently an international group named Ashoka created a network of what it calls “Changemaker schools.” They are helping students learn how to be active, constructive, empathetic people. More information about this network is at

Finally, What Kids Can Do, online at, has great examples of students helping improve the world.

Wayne Jennings, an award winning, innovative Minnesota educator reminded me of the lasting value of these programs: “Much of the school curriculum is forgotten, but community service is remembered for a lifetime.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].

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