Service learning combines real-world projects that help the community with academic coursework and assessments. The results? Greater student achievement and understanding, plus a lot of fun.
A study by the National Commission on Service-Learning found that well-implemented service-learning programs that provide real decision-making powers for students have a myriad of benefits , including:
Academic: Service-learning can increase students’ academic engagement and motivation, can improve academic achievement as measured by both homework assignments and standardized tests, and can improve students’ analytical and problem-solving skills.
Civic and Ethical: Service-learning fosters a sense of belonging and commitment to a community and promotes responsibility, trustworthiness, and social competence.
Social and Personal Development: Service-learning helps to reduce risky and problem behaviors both within and outside of the immediate school setting, increasing awareness of a variety of careers, and encouraging positive workplace attitudes.
Benefits to the School
When practiced school-wide or at least by a critical mass of teachers, service-learning can promote cohesiveness and mutual respect both amongst teachers and between students and teachers. Students feel more connected to their school and teachers engage more in conversations about teaching and learning, which can reinvigorate educators and stimulate innovative instructional practices. Service-learning also fosters closer connections between the school and the local community, can contribute to new positive perceptions of young people as responsible, resourceful contributors, and can help communities directly by meeting their real needs and demands. 
Seven Characteristics of a High-Quality Program
Educators and researchers have identified the following seven characteristics of effective community service and service-learning :
The guidebook published by the Corporation for National and Community Service recommends that service activities should last for a minimum of 40 hours per school year in order to have a beneficial impact on the students and the community.
Connection to Curriculum/Academic Standards
Aligning service programs with specific learning objectives not only helps to make explicit to students the lessons and practices to be learned, but also can transform service learning into a performance-based assessment tool used to demonstrate mastery of school, district, or state standards across all areas of the curriculum. In an ever-shrinking world, every service learning opportunity should help students develop the habits of mind that help them to recognize the global implications of every action, no matter how local.
Reflection, such as class debriefings, writing in journals, or other organized analytical exercises, enables students to think critically about their service experiences and to evaluate possible causes and solutions to issues that arose during their activities. These activities should help students to reflect on the local, regional, national and global impact of their actions.
In order to foster leadership, responsibility, and accountability, students should be given the opportunity to make strategies and decisions at every stages of the service project, from assessing community needs, to planning activities, to implementing a program.
Strong Community Partnerships
Service programs designed to address real community needs identified by both the students and the community members help strengthen school-community relationships and create a foundation for sustainable, impactful projects.
Teacher Preparation and Professional Development
School leaders should structure teacher professional development and planning time to ensure teachers are able to (1) link service learning with the curriculum, (2) lead reflection activities, and (3) collaborate with community partners. Training should focus both on logistical and organizational issues for implementing service programs as well as on pedagogical considerations.
Schoolwide support of service-learning projects includes fostering a climate in which service learning is regarded as an integral part of all students’ educational experiences. School leaders should ensure educators have ample time to prepare for such activities. Consider engaging a part- or full-time service-learning coordinator at the school or district level, and creating a flexible in-school schedule that permits options such as block scheduling that allows for extended class time, or sanctioning after-school programs.
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 Fiske 29. Corporation 15. See also: Daniel Weiler, Amy LaGoy, Eric Crane, and Abby Rovner, Executive Summary: Phase II Final Report, July 1998, California Department of Education, 9 September 2004 <http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/sl/execsummary.asp>.
 Adapted from Fiske 30-35; Corporation 9; and Weiler, LaGoy, Crane, and Rovner.
Have you implemented a service-learning program? What was the nature of the program, and what are some of your must-have components in a successful program?