Service-Learning Helps High School Retention

December 24, 2009 Updated: December 24, 2009

COLORADO—Inspiration struck two students 10 minutes before their service-learning class at Centaurus High School, where students presented their planned semester projects to classmates and program organizers.

Cesar Valenzuela, a junior, quickly explained to his project partner, a senior by the name of Cristina Aguilar, that instead of performing the skit they had planned, they should talk “about personal experiences from people who dropped out [of high school]—what kind of challenges those drop-out students are facing now, how did it affect them.”

As their project on high school drop-out prevention unfolded, Cesar, Cristina, and other group members surveyed their high school peers about personal school experiences. Their survey found that students want more hands-on learning and in-class support, and that students, especially Hispanic students, also want more motivation.

Their findings echo the 2006 report, "Silent Epidemic," by the Civic Enterprises, LLC and the Peter D. Hart Research Associates, in which 81 percent of students indicated that applied learning opportunities would increase their chances of staying in school through graduation.

Of the many reasons students drop out, disengagement from school was the main reason, cited by 47 percent of drop-out students. Academic failure, family factors, and economic factors were secondary reasons.

Everyone Can Serve

Service-learning integrates community service into school curricula. It “differs from generic community service in that it has specific academic goals," is organized by schools and requires students to reflect on their experiences, according to a 2008 report on service-learning and drop-out prevention, published by the Civic Enterprises, LLC and the Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

The combination of academic and experiential learning develops practical life skills and fosters connections between students’ academic careers and issues they care about. The consensus among researchers is that, while service-learning programs are by no means a fix-all solution to America’s public high school drop-out problem, effective programs are key drop-out prevention tools.

Before his presentation, Cesar said with a big grin that he hopes to go to college on a wrestling scholarship, and if his school has service-learning, he will mentor high school students.

With regard to the service-learning experience, he said: “It's a class I find fun. A lot of my friends are in it, for one, and for two, it's just an easy class. Everyone gets along, and you're always doing something. It’s not the same-old book work."

"You’re working together,” added Cristina.

The service-learning class at Centaurus, which began last year, is part of a 19-year-old international Public Achievement initiative. The class was co-initiated by the University of Colorado’s (CU) Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement, the International and National Service Voluntary Training Program's Community in Partnership, the I Have A Dream Foundation of Boulder County, and the Centaurus High School.

CU undergraduates mentor Centaurus students, some of whom are in the risk category for dropping out. Current projects include developing sustainable social action projects on issues such as racism and discrimination, the need for better relations between students and police, and the need for a movie theater in the small town surrounding the high school.