Phi Delta Kappan Magazine – Building a Bridge Between Service and Learning

What do out-of-school youths offer the workplace? If you ask the public or look at research statistics, it’s easy to conclude: not much. Young people who don’t complete high school are often disengaged not only from employment and education opportunities, but also their communities.

Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado, is an alternative high school for students who didn’t thrive in mainstream settings. Its curriculum emphasizes experiential education and service learning. When the W.K. Kellogg Foundation decided to sponsor a national initiative called New Options for Youth, which explores various credentials as alternatives to high school diplomas, it did something unusual. Among the researchers the foundation engaged to collect data were service learning students from Eagle Rock.

Michael Soguero, a math teacher and director of professional development at Eagle Rock, said, “We were really thought of as partners in the project.” Soguero’s math class covered the use of statistics, and a research firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, offered the students training in the ethnographic skills of neutrality and objectivity in interviewing, surveying, and documentation. Through their carefully designed protocols, eight Eagle Rock students conducted surveys and qualitative interviews with more than 75 young men, predominantly black and Latino, from Baltimore, Maryland, and Oakland, California, who hadn’t succeeded in traditional school settings.

Because the Eagle Rock students had faced similar hurdles themselves, their base of empathy made the experience powerful. Interview subjects seemed more willing to disclose details about their thoughts and their lives with student-researchers. The project underscored the belief that young people are experts about a substantial number of things that adults are not.

Amanda Hansen, one of the young researchers, talked about what she found empowering about the project: “We were dealing with a real-life situation where we got to develop skills in finding a solution.” Students explored aspirations and hurdles by asking their interview subjects such questions as, What do you want in life? What makes it hard for you to get it? “I love how I can relate to a lot of these out-of-school youths,” said Hansen.

Over a four-month period, the students collected information from multiple perspectives and aggregated and analyzed their data. Students learned to look for patterns among the responses and correlations between the surveys and interviews. “They learned about navigating the real world,” said Soguero.

At the end of their project, they flew to Michigan to present their findings to the Kellogg Foundation. Perhaps least surprising, they found that service learning was among the programs that help out-of school youths take meaningful steps to employment.

Students also left the project feeling that the experience had a profound effect on their ability to make a difference and be involved in the issues affecting their communities.

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