How Community Service Turns Today’s Students into Tomorrow’s High-Achievers

multiethnic group of volunteers

By: Dr. David R. Schuler. 

In my 20 years as a superintendent, I’ve seen how participating in community service shapes students’ futures for the better. Students are able to take what they have learned and apply it beyond the classroom. They build soft skills as they connect to their community and discover new passions. Volunteering also allows them to see different kinds of workplaces to determine which might be right for them.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that service-learning participation increases the likelihood of college graduation for students by 22 percentage points. And the benefits of community service go beyond higher education. Research also shows that students are 25 percent more likely to return to their hometowns after they volunteer in their community.

And yet, educators still heavily rely on one indicator—a standardized test score—to tell us if students will be successful after high school graduation. If we want to stay the greatest global economy the world has ever seen, we need to produce a generation of graduates who can do more than take a test well.

Almost five years ago, my school district and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, launched a national movement that is redefining what it means to be ready for life after high school. We know that students learn in all kinds of ways, and they should be measured in different ways. Redefining Ready! compiles a variety of research-supported metrics—from GPA to good attendance to Advanced Placement success to a C or higher in Algebra II—and lays out a new way for educators to view students’ potential.

So far, 17 states have incorporated Redefining Ready! into their state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans. I’m proud of that, and I’m especially excited to see more states embrace community service as a way to demonstrate readiness.

Barriers to Community Service

As I’ve talked to educators across the country, I’ve heard the barriers that confront educators trying to manage these service experiences. The logistics of tracking and managing service opportunities can seem like more of a hassle than a value-add. Trust me, I totally understand.

It’s hard to focus on ensuring that students are making meaningful connections and having fulfilling experiences when you’re busy tracking down slips of paper that verify a student’s volunteer hours or sorting through endless spreadsheets to calculate how many places your students donated their time during a specific time period. And for school systems in states where service-learning needs to be tracked, the focus turns away from the value of service and towards compliance.

Meeting Students Where They Are

I encourage educators to look for solutions outside of paper and pen or spreadsheets so that they can focus on facilitating more meaningful service opportunities and celebrating their school’s impact on the local economy. I also believe we should meet students where they are. Students live on their smartphones and tablets! We need to have them log their hours on a digital system that is connected to these mobile-first platforms. If students can track their hours wherever they are and in the digital world they know, managing service programs will be easier for us all.

In my school district, in suburban Chicago, we use a community service tracking software to manage these opportunities and record the data. Students can log their hours on their smartphones or tablets, and the software instantly crunches numbers so we can see if students are behind or on track with their service commitments. Then, we can intervene and see what needs to be done to get students where they need to be.

The data-driven software also breaks down service hours by school, grade level, and co-curricular groups, and lets us see the most frequent places or organizations that students choose to serve. That is extremely helpful when I meet with my Board of Education, elected officials, or local chambers of commerce. I can use these numbers to celebrate our schools and students, and show how we are impacting the world around us.

I know of a school district that uses data to create targeted outreach campaigns when they see students aren’t on track to hit their community service goals. They parsed the data and used it internally to put together those campaigns, resulting in almost every single student completing their hours.

No matter what tools we use, educators should champion community service. It adds value to our local communities and strengthens our students. The beauty of community service is that it gives our students real-world experiences, build their skills, and helps them decide what they want to do—or more importantly, what they don’t want to do—after high school.

So let’s make sure we are intentional when providing these opportunities so our students can demonstrate their potential and transform communities.

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David Schuler, PhD., is superintendent for Township High School District 214 in Illinois. You can follow David on Twitter at @DSchuler1970.

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