Engaging Students through Service-Learning

By Amy Meuers, Chief Operating Officer

In Chicago, nearly 40,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 20 and approximately 97,000 youth ages 16 to 24 are high school dropouts. Without a high school diploma, the implications for these youth — and the community as a whole — are stark. Youth dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated and less likely to receive the skills and experience they need to be employed.

At Youth Connection Charter School in Chicago, educators are working to turn those statistics around. YCCS is a multi-campus alternative education system solely dedicated to serving the growing population of dropout and at-risk students in Illinois. YCCS works to create a collaborative learning environment through a series of initiatives including service-learning — an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.


In partnership with the National Youth Leadership Council, YCCS is integrating sustainable, standards-based, high-quality service-learning into the curriculum. Through NYLC’s district-wide model, classroom boundaries are erased, and students learn by defining and solving real needs within their community. Building long-term relationships, NYLC custom-designs programs by which service-learning becomes the implementation strategy for academic goals identified by the district.

Connecting students to the community through positive, hands-on experiences like service-learning keeps students meaningfully engaged. And engagement translates to more time for teachers to improve students’ academic skills, offering students opportunities to reconnect with their communities in positive ways.

Essential to quality service-learning, students are encouraged to develop and execute solutions, and reflect on the experience and the skills acquired through that project. In the report Engaged for Success (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Wulsin, 2008), 82% of students who participated in service-learning projects said that their feelings about attending high school became more positive, and more than half of at-risk students believed that service-learning could have a big effect on keeping potential dropouts in school. At Ada S. McKinley High School — a YCCS Charter School — NYLC is working with teacher leaders and student ambassadors to improve school climate through service-learning. Students are making critical decisions and have a voice in their education experience. They are taking personal responsibility, applying what they have learned in real-world contexts, seeing value in what they have learned, feeling valued and respected for their wisdom and leadership, and connecting in positive ways with their community.

When teachers utilize service-learning in the classroom thoughtfully, they act more as organizers, facilitators, and mediators than transmitters of knowledge. They challenge students with analytical problems which students must solve in teams by obtaining information or utilizing the information given to them. Students become engaged because what they are learning is relevant to the “real world.”  Service-learning also demonstrates teachers’ confidence in their students and in themselves. Research shows (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Belfanz, 2009) that teachers’ perception about their own general belief in the ability of their students to learn and the teachers’ beliefs in their own capacity to effectively teach students has powerful effects on ultimate outcomes. Service-learning is advancing teacher and principal effectiveness at YCCS, and it is helping to meet the individual needs of students, preparing them for quality life experiences, technological literacy, graduation, vocational and post-secondary education, and competitive employment. Service-learning is engaging students to not only stay in school, but to improve the world around them.