Learning through service: coming soon?

Lost amid news of former Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent Aldridge Boone’s resignation are some impending curriculum changes and updates that could see county schools require students to complete a certain amount of community service before graduating.

Boone had raised the idea of adding community service to the high school’s curriculum at the school board’s December meeting, when he said he had noticed students, especially seniors, had “extra” periods in their schedule.

“There are only so many things we can offer the students, so sometimes you’d have kids who got put in a class just to take up a spot,” Boone said. “And that’s not fair to either the kids or the teachers.”

He suggested filling these gaps, and providing opportunities for community service seemed like a good start. “I’m very passionate about community service,” said Boone. “We all have an obligation to give back to our community.”

Before his departure Feb. 1, Boone handed the reins of the proposed new “Service Learning” program over to Beth Gall, a Rappahannock County High School teacher who has taught earth science, environmental science and horticulture for the past 30 years.

“She’s the perfect person for it,” Boone said. Gall, who said she was the one who approached Boone about being in charge of the new program, previously ran the Summer Youth Employment Program in Culpeper, which is similar in function service learning.

Gall, who said she accepted the job rather than retire after 30 years because she was “anxious to do something different,” stressed that the program is still primarily in the planning stage. The service learning program was approved by the school board at its January meeting, and Gall said she’s in the process of writing the course description and plans to be finished with that by next month.

“This is just our pilot program,” Gall said. “But the idea is to take our students and match them with a good service site in the county . . . it’s a great new chapter.”

Gall said that while she has several places in mind she’d like to form a partnership with – including Rappahannock’s Food Pantry, Senior Center, fire and rescue companies and others – none of these potential partners have yet been contacted.

“I will be contacting many people and places to discuss a cooperative relationship, but not until this summer or early fall,” she continued, adding that not even the students know about the program yet. “It’s important [students] are connected to the community. It’s a great chance to make them a part of something bigger than what they normally do.”

She also noted that the exact number of service hours students will be required to perform has not been set. “There’s one requirement for a VDOE [Virginia Department of Education] credit and another requirement for a diploma seal [from RCHS]. They’re vastly different requirements,” Gall continued, but added that she hoped to meet with decision makers “within the next week to hammer out these important details.”

She did confirm that the necessary credit hours will be split between time spent in the classroom and time spent at the work-site itself.

“We have purposely left [the credit hours] unwritten so we have some flexibility as we go into the pilot year,” Gall said in an email. “As with any credit class, the total number of hours required by the state is 140 hours of ‘seat time.’ We’ll likely try to target a 50/50 split between service hours and class hours, but we will play this by ear as far as the exact division of time.”

Gall said she would also like to find a way to work with programs that students may already be involved in – such as the Boy and Girl Scouts or Habitat for Humanity – though she would have to find another way to document students’ work with such groups.

Currently, each student will have to keep a journal of their time spent and ultimately make a presentation at the end of the semester, providing a measure of progress and as well as something to add to a resume or portfolio. Gall said students’ preferences on where they’d like to serve would be taken into account, making sure none of the work feels forced.

“They’re not free labor . . . and it’s not court-ordered community service,” Gall said. “That’s why we call it ‘service learning’ – they’re providing a service but learning something at the same time.”

Gall isn’t leaving the classroom fully yet, however. The long-term plan is to relinquish her in-classroom responsibilities and focus solely on her service learning duties – such as frequently checking in with the service sites to make sure everyone’s needs are being met – but Gall said she expects that will be a gradual transition.

Boone and Gall both said the period would initially serve as an elective for seniors, though the ultimate goal is to make service learning a requirement for graduation. Only the VDOE could make it such, however, meaning RCHS would have to submit a proposal and go through a lengthy approval process before such a change could be made.

The community service curriculum was originally slated to begin this semester, but was pushed back until the start of the 2013-14 school year so it could be refined.