This article originally appeared in the Greenwich Sentinel's education section.
By Kerry Bader, Director of Community Service in the Upper School
Most high schools throughout the country offer some type of service learning program for their students. Underscoring these offerings is the belief that this type of experiential learning will create in students a desire to be lifelong champions of justice. While the sentiment is powerful, the question of how to effectively implement such a program remains. As educators, we have to think beyond the day-to-day lessons and activities we lead while the students are in our charge and more about how we instill a commitment to service into college and beyond. At Sacred Heart Greenwich, we have answered this question with a three-pronged approach: curriculum, commitment and advocacy. We believe this approach breeds the morals, ethics and understanding to propel students into lifelong advocates for the poor, powerless and marginalized.
At Sacred Heart, students as young as three years old take theology courses meant to instill in them a belief that they are valued and that there is a higher purpose to which we all are called. In age appropriate ways, students are given opportunities to think about how each of our actions impact ourselves, each other and our world. For example, elementary aged students learn about creation and discuss how to honor our earth. Building on this foundation, middle school students discuss the ideas of vocation and covenant: what am I called to do and what do I promise to do. And finally in the high school, students are embedded with the deep philosophical Catholic tradition discussing Aquinas’ Natural Law, Kant’s categorical imperative and Hobbes’ Leviathan to help peel away the layers of societal mandates and preconceived notions to arrive at the truth.
This curricular foundation works in tandem with a commitment to action. At all levels students are able to respond to the vocation of service in meaningful ways. Using the resources available on our campus, in our community and in our world, students come together to address pressing needs. A recent example of this was our garden harvest and food rescue, which wove together the ideas of sustainability and hunger relief. Elementary aged students planted our campus garden with seeds for vegetables such as eggplant, kale and squash. Throughout the year, the students tend to the garden: raking, weeding and watering. In the fall, middle school students harvest the plants, which are then donated to our own campus kitchen and local food pantries. High school aged students complete the chain by bringing the produce to a food pantry in Port Chester. The food pantry director commented about how much the clients value the fresh produce, which is much harder to find and more expensive to purchase.
Advocacy is the natural result of a curricular foundation wedded to service. At all levels, students are given the opportunity to learn more about social justice issues and then to advocate on behalf of a population in need. As part of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools, comprised of 24 schools in over 40 countries, Sacred Heart is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges faced by communities throughout the world. We are able to attract scholars and advocates from a wide variety of backgrounds to speak to the students about their firsthand experience working with the poor and marginalized. A visit from Betty Ogiel, a human resource officer in Uganda and graduate of Sacred Heart primary school in Kalunga, Uganda, is an example of how the Network and our combined curricular and experiential approach helps give students a more complete understanding of the struggles people of the world encounter and the opportunities available to combat these issues. Betty visited Sacred Heart and spoke in both large and small group formats to students in all three divisions. She spoke not only about the poverty that she endured but also about how the education she received at the Sacred Heart School in Uganda transformed her life.
Thanks to this deep exposure and the variety of offerings, students were able to meaningfully and passionately advocate for the cause, because they had such a deep understanding of the issues. Students in all divisions created programs to help raise money for the Sacred Heart school in Uganda that ranged from the elementary aged students organizing a jump roping contest, to middle school students organizing a walk, to high school students organizing a talent show. The age-appropriate interpretations of charity events were led by students, and the students contributed to them both physically and financially.
Like many other schools, Sacred Heart provides immersive service learning trips that help students engage deeply with people throughout the United States and in different parts of the world. However, at Sacred Heart we believe that transformative thinking comes not in these discrete experiences, but through the tri-pronged approach that weaves a deepening intellectual understanding about our role in the world with service experiences. In so doing, we create in our students a vocation towards service that lasts a lifetime.