Community Service thriving at the School Without Walls

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• December 9, 2013

Since its inception in 1971, the School Without Walls has lived up to its name. Fundamentally, its driving philosophy is that learning cannot be narrowly confined to the school classroom. Rather, a full education requires engagement with the broader community outside its walls.

Perhaps nowhere is this ethos better seen than in SWW’s Community Service program. The long standing program—the first of its kind and one that became the model for the District wide community service graduation requirement—is as vibrant today as ever.

According to Principal Idonia Owens, who began teaching at SWW in 1990, the original and current mission of the CS program is “to give back to the community which has given so much to the school.” In doing so, students learn to become more responsible and effective community members and citizens – as well as gain experiences and skills applicable to work and college.

Mused Kassim working as a Teacher’s Aide at the Children’s School (#15)

Owens says so strong is the school’s belief that the program is critical for life beyond high school that all students are required to complete 75 community service hours each year. From day one, students are assisted to find appropriate sites they will enjoy. And, this time is embedded into the framework of the school week; students leave campus on Thursdays at noon to ensure full immersion in their assignments.

Over the decades, hundreds of non-profit agencies have welcomed SWW students, such as government, human services or legal agencies, area radio/TV stations and day care centers. This year is no different as SWW kids are energetically volunteering all around the city. Currently, students are volunteering at local libraries, the Rochester Public Market, city elementary schools, Action for a Better Community, Rochester Teen Court, Barnard Fire Department, Harbor House, and the YMCA, to name just a few.

Thomas Cuyler in the GIS Scholars Program

This year several students are involved in two unusual community services. The GIS Scholars Program, an after-school training program in Geographic Information Systems technology, involves students in collecting, mapping, analyzing, and presenting information about building and property conditions in their neighborhoods to help community planners make better informed decision.

One teacher, Janet Siegel, has arranged for her entire Extended Class to have CERT training from the RCSD’s Department of Safety and Security and the Rochester Fire Department. These students will become nationally certified as community emergency response team members. They will also receive certifications in CPR/first aid, and national incident management systems. The first task was to assess this building for vulnerabilities, hazards, threats, and make suggestions for mitigation.

Keishlah Olivera and Xabrina Diaz interviewing SWW Security Officer Rick Hepburn as part of their Community Emergency Response Team training

Often SWW students have gone above and beyond the 75 hour requirement by reaching out and supporting the community without being prompted. Two girls hosted a “Cupcakes for Cancer fundraiser, and donated the proceeds to the Golisano Children’s Hospital. Owens rightfully concludes, “It is absolutely amazing that our student body gives about 20,000 hours of service to our community each year! It is extraordinary point of pride for our school family.”

Over the years, despite resistance along the way, SWW’s commitment to community engagement—and the proof of its success in enlarging student worldviews—paved the way for the now District wide graduation requirement that students participate in some form of service.

Alexis Hernandez and Dimine Hickenbottom selling “Cupcakes for Cancer”

Recently, I came across a D & C article from 1990, the first year community service became a formal SWW graduation requirement. Back then, somewhat to my surprise, the community service ideal was not strongly embraced. Some board members feared the requirement would dissuade many from enrolling at SWW. Windsor Asamoah-Wade, who still teaches Social Studies at the school, adamantly disagreed: “I don’t feel this will scare kids away. It will help them invest in the school and in the community.”

Fortunately, Asamoah-Wade was right. They’ve been coming back for 23 years and counting.

For other examples of civic engagement, see how SWW has interacted with the local Jewish and Vietnam Veterans communities. Holocaust survivors tell their stories at the School Without Walls  and  Veterans visit the School Without Walls as students begin in depth study of the Vietnam War