EXCEL: Building a Culture of Service by Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for EXCEL Ben Snyder
“I don’t understand,” said the Nobles senior.
“What don’t you understand?” I replied.
“Here we are in India,” she said, “in the midst of seemingly endless poverty, and the students at the local private school (that was simply housing us) don’t seem to be involved in any kind of service activity. That attitude just wouldn’t be acceptable at Nobles - the culture of service just wouldn’t allow it.”
Certainly those comments by a member of the Class of 2014 made me feel good about the values we hope to instill at Nobles - but it also got me thinking about how that culture is developed and how those values are instilled.
Putting our money (or requirements and time) where our mouth is:
Amidst some controversy (or at least some consternation) in the late 1980s, Nobles was one of the first schools in the country to implement a community service graduation requirement. The faculty at the time made a clear statement - which has since been reiterated in myriad ways - that engaging in meaningful service work is critical to developing character, empathy, humility, a strong work ethic, and a commitment to civic engagement. We want Nobles students to learn about the organizations they are working with, to understand the problems their work is trying to address, and to reflect on their experiences. Most schools “encourage” or “support” service, but few ask as much of their students. If we truly believe in the importance of service as a critical component of living a meaningful life and hope to live up to our mission of developing “leaders for the public good” we must insure all students are involved in meaningful service.
Inch-deep, mile-wide philosophy:
At times over the years we have been criticized for giving students too many options to complete their service requirement. “Cause X is clearly the most pressing issue of our time!” or “Organization Y does the best work on issue Z - let’s focus our efforts there,” or “Why support nonprofits in New Orleans or (pick your country) when we have so many problems here in Boston?”
While it may be true that if we focused all of our efforts on a single issue or organization we could potentially make a “bigger” impact, our educational mission demands that we help students find the cause, organization, or place that is most meaningful to them (and who are we to say what that single cause might be?). For some students their cause may be right around the corner - for others it could be on the other side of the world. But the goal is for every student to use some of their time in high school to find a place where they can make a positive difference.
Capitalizing on the “age of opportunity:”
In his recent book The Age of Opportunity, noted psychologist Lawrence Steinberg asserted that adolescence is the period of maximum brain plasticity - which makes for incredible opportunities for growth, especially when students are engaged in new environments and experiences. As they go about their many service projects, Nobles students are invariably exposed to new people, new places, new concepts, and often complexity and ambiguity. In turn, these opportunities build in them a sense of satisfaction in helping others which, in turn, develops a sense of duty or obligation to build service (in some form) into the remainder of their lives. Middle and high school students are old enough to make important contributions yet young enough to be positively transformed by the experience.
Bringing talent to the table:
When Bob Henderson speaks of character education at Nobles he often turns to the importance of the Nobles adults with whom your children interact every day. As we hire faculty and staff, we look for talented people who can not only be strong classroom teachers and mentors outside of the classroom, but also search for those who have incorporated meaningful service into their lives prior to their arrival at Nobles. In addition, our service program leaders go to extraordinary lengths to support students in the full range of their interests. This combined role modeling is powerful. Putting this team of adults together is no small task but an essential one in creating a learning community where the culture of service is embedded.
Caring about the data:
Measuring our work - in any area of the school - is vital to determining our impact and our effectiveness. We know that in a “typical” year, 80% of the senior class will have exceeded the 80 hour requirement, that Nobles students will have given over 20,000 hours of service and raise roughly $100,000 to distribute to over 75 organizations (many of which are in Greater Boston) and created 50 or more service-related “events” (not to mention countless “in kind” gifts of various sorts - from hats and gloves to food and medicine).
Surveys of our graduates show us that well over 80% of young alumni are participating in service activities in college and beyond. This information carefully holds our proverbial community feet to the fire and also allows us different forms of measuring impact.
Finding the right partners:
Finally, all our service programs - from Boston to New Orleans to around the globe - are established by forming long term partnerships with like minded organizations. Whether it is 20+ years of working with Community Servings in Boston or St. Brendan’s School in South Africa or the decade of work in Post-Katrina New Orleans or with Dedham’s Riverdale School, forming productive partnerships creates relationships that enhance not only our impact on the ground but also the nature of the experience for Nobles students.
These principles upon which the service program has been built have created a “culture of service” at Nobles that supports the mission and has established the foundation for Experiential and Community Engaged Learning at Nobles.