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Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools
NCES: 1999043
September 1999

Service-Learning

Service-learning in K-12 schools combines elements of community service with classroom instruction. The service performed by students must be organized in relation to the curriculum, have clearly stated learning objectives, meet real community needs, and include participant reflection or critical analysis of the service activities. The percentage of public schools nationwide with service-learning was 32 percent (table 1), which means that about half as many schools had service-learning as had community service. By instructional level, 25 percent of elementary schools, 38 percent of middle schools, and 46 percent of all high schools had students participating in service-learning.

There were also differences in the percentage of schools with service-learning based on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Schools with less than 50 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were more likely to have service-learning than were schools with 50 percent or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Implementation of Service-Learning

Schools can implement service-learning programs in a number of different ways. They range from school-wide service learning, which involves every student in the school, to grade-wide service-learning, which involves all students in one or more grades, to service-learning as part of an individual course. Of schools with service-learning, 79 percent reported implementing service-learning in two or more ways (not shown in table). Irrespective of how service-learning is implemented, a program may be mandatory and/ or voluntary in the same school. For example, a school might require that all 10 th -graders participate in service-learning, while allowing students in other grades the option of participating.

Overall, 70 percent of schools with service-learning had students participating in grade-wide service-learning, where all students in one or more grades participated in a service project or program through academic coursework (table 2). Sixty-two percent of schools reported that service-learning was offered in individual academic classes that were not part of a broader grade-or school-wide initiative. Discipline-wide service-learning, that is service-learning integrated into an entire subject area through academic coursework, was utilized in 53 percent of schools. One-third of the schools with service-learning reported having school-wide service-learning during the 1998-1999 academic year.

Examining the data by instructional level reveals significant differences in the ways elementary schools and middle/ high schools implemented service-learning. Elementary schools were more likely to have grade-wide or discipline-wide service-learning than were middle/ high schools. At the same time, middle/ high schools were more likely than elementary schools to have service-learning in individual academic classes that were not part of a broader grade-or school-wide initiative or in separate electives or advisory periods.

The ways schools implemented service-learning varied, to some extent, by whether the service-learning was voluntary or mandatory. In general, schools were more likely to make service-learning a voluntary choice for students than to mandate it (Figure 1). When looking at mandatory participation and voluntary participation practices by instructional level, middle/ high schools were more likely to make participation in service-learning voluntary. However, any difference that might exist at the elementary school level between mandatory and voluntary participation was not statistically significant.

Types of Support for Teachers

Interest in involving students in service-learning has been accompanied by support being provided to teachers interested in integrating service-learning into their course curriculum. Nationwide, 83 percent of public schools with service-learning offered some type of support to teachers interested in integrating service-learning into the curriculum (table 3). The most common types of support provided to teachers included support for attending service-learning training or conferences outside of the school (66 percent), financial support for costs associated with service-learning projects or programs (58 percent), and mini-grants for service-learning programs or curriculum development (45 percent). However, smaller percentages of schools provided staff support in the form of part-time service-learning coordinators (18 percent) or full-time service-learning coordinators (3 percent).

Why Service-Learning?

Public schools with service-learning were asked to select their three most important reasons for encouraging student involvement in service-learning from a list of ten potential reasons. These reasons ranged from increasing student knowledge and understanding of the community to improving student participation in school. The most frequently cited reasons for encouraging student involvement in service-learning focused on the relationships among students, the school, and the community. For example, 53 percent of schools said that they encouraged student involvement in service-learning to help students become more active members of the community (Figure 2). The other most frequently cited reasons were increasing student knowledge and understanding of the community (51 percent), meeting real community needs and/ or fostering relationships between the school and surrounding community (48 percent), and encouraging student altruism or caring for others (46 percent).

While involvement with the community is a key component of service-learning, it is only a part of the service-learning experience. The other side of service-learning emphasizes the connection between service and academics (Figure 2). About one-fifth (19 percent) of schools with service-learning said that one of their top 3 reasons for encouraging student involvement in service-learning was to teach critical thinking and problem solving skills. In addition, 12 percent of schools with service-learning said that improving student achievement in core academic courses was one of their most important reasons for encouraging student involvement in service-learning.

Special Funding for Service Activities

All public schools were asked whether they received any special grants or other special funding to support community service and/ or service-learning. Four-fifths of all schools (84 percent) that reported they had some level of service-learning and/ or community-service also reported they did not receive outside financial help to fund the program(s). Of the 16 percent of schools that did report receiving special funding, 43 percent reported receiving support from corporations or businesses, and 37 percent reported receiving support from foundation grants (Figure 3). Ten percent of schools receiving special support indicated that they received support through the Learn and Serve America program, a federal program designed to provide grants to schools interested in integrating service-learning into their curriculum.

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