Learning shouldn’t be confined to a classroom, and the Santa Barbara County Service Learning Initiative supports that idea by transforming traditional instruction through practical application.
Coordinator Irene Falzone said the SBCSLI is a partnership of 12 districts, funded in part by a grant through the California Department of Education. It’s in its fifth year of training more than 37 teachers who strive to create a network that incorporates hands-on activities to spur students’ interest through community service.
“One of the teachers told me that if those students could stay here until 5 in the afternoon, they would because they care about their work,” SBCSLI coordinator Kathy Kelly said. “Learning becomes interesting and fun, and not something they are made to do, but want to do.”
What has students so captivated? One of the activities is s’Cool Gardens, where students can get their hands dirty and experience the science behind cultivation.
The program, a partnership between the Orfalea Fund’s s’Cool Food initiative and SBCC’s Center for Sustainability, works with local elementary school communities to install gardens and integrate agriculture-based learning into the school setting. But it’s not a cookie-cutter program; the focus of the curriculum changes based on the school’s preference, according to s’Cool Gardens program coordinator Trish Stone-Damen.
“The program is flexible with the school to make it effective and sustainable,” she said. “We don’t tell them what to do; we work with them and they tell us to focus on either, science, language arts, math, art, etc.”
Isla Vista School houses one of the 17 school gardens the program installed or enhanced in Santa Barbara County. Each school can concentrate the program on different elements. Those may include the science of propagation and harvesting, the practice of language and reflection through daily journals, or the creation of mosaics and other art, all while students experience the benefits of community service.
“The key element is youth voice,” Kelly said. “When the students have a choice in what they want to examine, they own what they are doing. Seeing you can be the one to make a change and have the confidence to step forward makes a huge difference, and the younger you learn that it becomes who you are.”
The learning also extends to the kitchen. The program obtained a Producer Certificate, similar to the certification process for farmers at the Farmers Market, so schools can serve the food grown in the gardens in the cafeteria.
“We try to empower the schools to sustain food from scratch-meal programs so kids learn to eat healthier,” s’Cool food director Kathleen de Chadenédes said.
Another service-learning project included enabling solar energy panels to power a fountain, with the help of local engineers.
Falzone said that projects such as these not only serve to inspire students with tangible manifestations of their work, but create community partners that can carry on SBCSLI’s work without their help.
“We want to get the practitioners who work with community partners to do this,” she said. “(Teachers and community partners) don’t need us; they have a strong network to get the resources they need to facilitate service learning.”
The students are encouraged to use what they’re learning to answer larger questions about the world around them. Students at Alice Shaw Elementary in Orcutt learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas, and were asked what they could do about it.
The students tried to figure out where the mass came from and realized they could do their part by analyzing their waste around the school. They gathered all of the trash that littered their school, graphed its location and weighed it to implement a recycling system that reduced their trash output to about half.
Falzone said the projects have the greatest impact on low achievers; one of the teachers saw participation and vocabulary use skyrocket when students traveled away from the classroom to learn.
“It makes it more tangible and real, and teachers see a jump in academic performance,” she said. “A lot of the pressure is released when kids use their hands and aren’t thinking so much.”
Service learning also has a positive impact on special-needs children because the programs give them confidence and make them feel competent, said Falzone, adding that teachers receive a confidence boost as well when they see their struggling students succeed.
“It has a huge effect on teacher morale,” Falzone said, “and with all the budget cuts, teachers need all we can give them.”