By: Julie Rogers Bascom, Director, Learning and Leadership
“One more thing” ….maybe that’s what you’re thinking when you opened this blog. We recognize that implementing the service-learning process with your young people can feel, at times, overwhelming. However, the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice developed by NYLC in partnership with other leaders in the service-learning field, represent best practices to create high-quality service-learning experiences that are meaningful for your young people. When you understand and utilize the standards in your practice, you can create a transformative experience for your students, their communities, and your institutions, ensuring the success of your process and making it worth the effort you’ve put in.
Let’s explore K-12 Standards for Quality Practice
Link to Curriculum
Quality service-learning should have clear and intentional learning objectives that align with outcomes for youth. These can be increasing academic benchmarks, social emotional learning skills, or character development goals. The point is not to just “do” a project, but align it with what you want for young people to be able to know or understand. The service component is designed to complement and deepen learning, creating a symbiotic relationship between service and education.
Check out what young people say about what they learned through service-learning.
Service-learning actively engages participants in meaningful and personally-relevant service activities. This approach asks to go beyond the acts of simple charity as it encourages individuals to connect with the causes they support on a deeper level, fostering a genuine understanding of the issues. Meaningful service empowers young people to see the impact of their actions, not only on the recipients of their service but also on themselves, as they become more aware, empathetic, and socially responsible individuals.
Consider a common service project, a food drive. Some students may be given extra food from their own pantries to donate, and while this is a way to recycle and put food on someone else’s table, where is connection to learning? Could young people be digging into the roots of this issue, and instead asking questions about why people are hungry, what food costs, and so on? This is what can spark deeper knowledge and critical thinking.
Youth voice is a foundational standard of quality in service-learning. Young people have unique perspectives, fresh ideas, and a deep understanding of the issues that affect their communities. By incorporating their voices into the design and implementation of service-learning experiences, we not only make these initiatives more relevant and effective but also empower students to take ownership of their learning. Involving youth in decision-making around their experiences encourages a sense of agency and responsibility, which are essential for their personal growth and development as engaged citizens. Recognizing and valuing youth voice in service-learning is not just a matter of inclusivity; it’s a way to enrich the learning for everyone involved and create sustainable, community-driven change.
Consider these two scenarios:
An adult observes that the local park needs some attention as garbage cans are overflowing and there aren’t any signs directing people where to dispose of trash. The adult may turn to their students and say, “Hey – let’s go pick up the park. There’s a need for more garbage cans and we need to alert users of the park to the importance of caring for this park.”
An adult takes a group of young people to a park, which the group has already identified as a place they use. The adult asks, “What are some of the assets of this park and what are some needs?” A discussion ensues with identifying that the park is an asset as it’s a place for the community to experience the outdoors, a place to play sports, and go for walks. The students identify the need for better collection of trash and come up with ideas to resolve it that may include more receptacles, an awareness campaign, and a discussion with the park manager.
In the second scenario, we can see young people using skills like critical thinking, collaboration, interviewing, and perspective taking. Both scenarios are good and important acts, yet the latter example aligns with positive youth outcomes – and that is what we are hoping for!
High-quality service-learning prioritizes reciprocity, where students learn while also contributing positively to the community. This standard encourages schools and programs to foster long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations and avoid one-sided or exploitative relationships. For example, a group of 7th grade students were studying human impact on the environment, when they learned how water runoff was impacting the salinity in the nearby creek. They went to the city council, requesting that 10% of all new construction include permeable surfaces. While this wasn’t immediately moved into the city statue, it did happen 15 years later. What did happen immediately was that the city council came back to the students the following year, asking for their input in making the community a better place to live.
This is the purpose of quality standards in service-learning – young people learn the skills they need to be leaders and decision makers!
We’ve covered four of the eight standards here – head to part two for the last four!