Ray Huard… A group of fifth graders at Foothill-Oak Elementary school saw a homeless couple near their school on a rare rainy day.
They talked about what it would be like to be stuck in the rain with no shelter, to be homeless.
They wanted to do something about it. With a little guidance from teachers and others, they set up tables outside the school and sold pencils, things they made themselves and things they brought from home.
They raised more than $180, which they gave to Operation Hope Vista. They picked Operation Hope after researching local charities that worked with the homeless and learning that some of their classmates had been helped by Operation Hope.
Recounting the experience of the Foothill-Oak students, Robert Crowell said that this was one of more than a dozen such projects Vista Unified School District students undertook in the 2015-2016 school year. Crowell is the district’s lead for service learning – a program that has students researching and finding solutions to real problems in their community.
It’s not unusual for students to get involved in community projects, like cleaning up beach trash.
The difference in service learning is that the students make a connection to what they’re learning in class – researching the harm beach litter causes, analyzing water samples for pollution, documenting what they find and presenting their findings to a pollution control agency.
“The number one thing is just the student engagement, just the kids taking ownership of their learning,” said Crowell, a former elementary school teacher. “The real key to service learning is the students are the ones who really drive the project.”
Monte Vista Elementary School teacher Annick Gillot-Salmon said that her fifth grade students have gained a new sense of self-confidence from the service learning projects they’ve worked on.
“It really made my classroom more dynamic and exciting,” Gillot-Salmon said.
Two years ago, she asked her class if they could figure out an environmentally friendly way to deal with sediment left over from an aquaponics farm that grows vegetables in water.
“At first, they were, ‘Why are you asking us, we’re just kids,’” Gillot-Salmon said. “By the end, they didn’t feel that way. They were really impressed with themselves.”
With considerable trial-and-error, her students found that the sediment could be dried and used as fertilizer in a flower garden, used to grow mushrooms, or as food for ghost shrimp.
In the 2015-2016 school year, Gillot-Salmon’s class made a “little free library” after researching early childhood literacy. The library is sort of a converted cabinet that the students decorated and stocked with books for a variety of reading levels.
Anyone can take a book and keep it and the students are responsible for restocking the library. They also prepared leaflets in English and Spanish outlining techniques to use when reading to children to increase literacy, Gillot-Salmon said.
This school year, her students are tackling an even thornier problem – how to make the outdoor school lunch area quieter.
Covered by a metal roof, the lunch area is between two buildings which create an echo chamber of sorts.
“That is a challenge,” Gillot-Salmon said. “I’ll see what they come up with.”
This year, Crowell hopes to have at least 1,200 students from throughout the district involved in service learning projects like those of Gillot-Salmon’s fifth graders.
“If we really get this in every elementary school, middle school and high school in Vista Unified, I can’t see why we can’t have 1,500 to 1,800 students involved,” Crowell said. “We really are looking to expand to every school. My goal is for every kid in Vista Unified to ultimately participate in service learning.”
Superintendent Devin Vodicka shares Crowell’s enthusiasm.
“I’m thrilled with the early success that we are seeing with our service learning projects,” Vodicka said. “Our teachers, staff, and community partners have done a magnificent job of identifying opportunities for our students to solve real-world problems.”
Vodicka said that the projects “reinforce the academic learning” students get in class.
“They empower our students to know that they can improve our community and make the world a better place,” Vodicka said. “I am looking forward to the next steps on this journey and I’m proud of the contributions of our students.”
To make that journey, Crowell is looking for community partners who are “willing to donate a little of their time and expertise” in suggesting projects.
For example, Hunter Industries in the 2015-2016 school year helped Foothill-Oak students install an irrigation system in a garden at the center of the school.
The Vista Chamber of Commerce has worked with students on chamber projects, and helped the school district line up service learning projects with local businesses.
Chamber Chief Executive Officer Bret Schanzenbach is a big fan of the program.
“Service learning is a great opportunity for kids in the classroom to get exposure to real world challenges,” Schanzenbach said. “I think it’s great that a lot of these projects are done at the elementary school age so kids can get an opportunity to experience things that are kind of beyond their typical horizon.”