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Tearing off the Labels: Service Learning Principles in Action

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Originally appears in the Fall 2007 issue

Who would have thought that eleven “at-risk,” “drop-out,” “gang-associated” youth could mobilize over 150 community volunteers to help them create a 3,000-square-foot xeriscaped garden on their school grounds? Not their principal, not the maintenance crew, not even the students themselves. But that’s what happened in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a group of students from School On Wheels Alternative High School took up the challenge of tackling visual pollution on their school grounds. The following is a description of their project, showing how it incorporated the principles of service-learning: youth voice and reflection, community partnerships, balanced environmental inquiry, purposeful civic learning and clear educational goals.

On a hot morning early in the school year, the students toured their dusty campus, listing what they liked and disliked about its appearance. Back inside, they reviewed their lists, noting the beauty of their half-century-old adobe school building in contrast to the ugliness of the “ghetto parking lot,” and then brainstormed ideas for “making our campus beautiful, just like all the other schools.” After a lengthy, passionate and, at times, heated discussion, they decided to transform the school’s unsightly gravel parking disaster into a circular drive surrounding a garden that would feature walkways and places for students to “hang out and relax.” The students’ engagement in identifying the problem and its resolution is an example of the service-learning strategy of engaging youth voice — ensuring that students choose the issue they want to take on.

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Vince Case is a team leader at School on Wheels Alternative High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a Grade 9-12 school-to-work program for students who have been unsuccessful in traditional high school settings.