What schools can do to engage students


What can five- and six-year olds learn from building a playground? Or what can high school students learn helping to produce a play, writing a history of their community, creating You-Tube videos about the value of dual (high school/college) credit courses, conducting water quality testing or planning and then building a community garden?

The answer is clear. Students who participate in hands-on, active learning generally will be more “engaged” in their education. And a 2012 Gallup poll of almost 500,000 American students in grades five through 12 helps explain why student engagement is so important. The poll also shows a dramatic decline in student engagement as students move thorough our public schools.
How do we “engage” students?

According to Barb Proulx, administrative assistant to the Independent School District 834 Board and Superintendent Corey Lunn, the district “has  developed a new five-year strategic plan for our entire district and we will begin implementation this coming fall. This plan embeds service learning for every high school student, every year.”

Current service examples include National Honor Society students helping plan and carry “four blood drives a year, two for students and two for the community. The steering committee members learn valuable lessons about the mission of the Red Cross as well as gain significant leadership and organizational experience,” Proulx said.

“In March 2013 our student council members will partner with the Red Cross to work on an The Elementary Prepare Fair project. They will organize a preparedness fair at an elementary school in our district to teach students basic safety lessons like calling 9-1-1 and planning fire escape routes,” she added.

Tom Kearney of New Heights Charter said, “Each year we take approximately 25 students to Valleyfair as part of their fundraising program. Our students work in the food service booths for an entire day. The time they are at work generates an hourly income, which is then donated back to the school. In one day we can make as much as $1,500 that we use to subsidize events or materials that our population might not otherwise be able to have or experience. Students learn things like customer service, working with a team, work-based organizational skills, counting money and using a cash register, problem solving, communication-both listening and speaking to understand one another.”

Jon Gutierrez of St. Croix Preparatory Academy writes that the school has “a threefold emphasis — academics, character, and leadership. Aside from the curriculum, character and leadership are also taught and modeled in the many community service projects supported by the St. Croix Prep community.
“Each ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grader is required to provide 10 hours of volunteer service each school year and seniors 20 hours. Service projects are coordinated through student organizations, such as National Honor Society, Student Council and Upper School Advisory. In addition, all Upper School students participate in an all-day community service day each spring. In March, our students will serve at Feed My Starving Children and Second Harvest Heartland.”
Other examples include:
Little Falls students in a combined Biology/English/Social Studies class read and wrote about the history of the Mississippi River. They also tested river water, discovering at one point that there was an unacceptably high level of bacteria in the water.

While  interviewing local residents for an area history, Houston students discovered one elderly woman had been a member of the French Resistance in World War II. This caused them to compare her, and their, high school years. The www.whatkidscando.org website provides great examples.

Gallup explains, “Hope, engagement and well being of students accounts for one third of the variance of student success. Yet schools don’t measure these things. Hope, for example, is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores, or grade point average.”

Gallup found that from elementary to secondary school, student engagement drops from 76 percent to 44 percent. Gallup concludes, “There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening — ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students — not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

You can read the report here: http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html .

Many families and employers want youngsters who have strong academic skills and are positive, able to work with others. In other words, engaged. We need to measure whether students are developing “3-R” skills, along with hope and a sense that they can accomplish important things.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]