Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)
Youth development organizations and schools have adopted service-learning as an intervention to engage youth with their communities and increase civic participation. Emerging evidence suggests that service-learning participants may experience positive civic impacts, as well as prosocial and academic outcomes (Billig & Furco, 2002; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Galston, 2001; Moore & Sandholtz, 1999). These impacts are particularly evident when service-learning is of high quality (Billig, 2004; Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005).
However, little is known about the inclusivity of this intervention. Is service-learning available and of high quality across diverse contexts? It has not yet been determined whether youth in high-poverty areas have similar access to this intervention as youth in wealthier communities.
Methods: The National Youth Leadership Council's 2004 National Study of Principals represents the first opportunity to test for differences in service-learning across geographic and poverty contexts. Data measuring service-learning scope, institutionalization, and quality were analyzed and compared across four school contexts: 1) high-poverty urban schools, 2) low-poverty urban schools, 3) high-poverty suburban schools, and 4) low-poverty suburban schools.
Results: Our initial hypothesis was that service-learning would be less prevalent in high-poverty urban schools, with less institutionalization and quality, given the substantial challenges such schools face. Data suggest this may not be the case. Instead, high-poverty urban schools appear to embrace service-learning as a strategy. Contrary to the perception that urban schools are resource poor, schools in this sample secure external resources (F(3, 233) = 5.85, p = .001); moreover, high-poverty urban schools support service-learning through written policies (X2(3, n = 289) = 10.51, p = .015) and attribute positive goals to service-learning (F(3, 302) = 7.78, p = .000.).
High-poverty suburban schools, on the other hand, emerge as somewhat lacking. Proportionately fewer high-poverty suburban schools offer service-learning opportunities (X2 (3, N=1077) = 10.65, p = .014), and those that do appear not to have overwhelmingly institutionalized them. There appears to be less formalization, e.g., requirements and written policy, and fewer supports for the development and implementation of service-learning.
Implications: This analysis reinforces issues of inclusion and equity in access to quality service-learning interventions among adolescents. Youth living in high-poverty urban circumstances may lack access to asset-based interventions which build on their strengths and empower them to engage in their communities as “competent citizens” (Checkoway, Figueroa, & Richards-Schuster, 2003). Continued attention to institutionalization and quality can identify resource “gaps” that may exist across various contexts, suggesting implications for targeted as well as systemic responses. Given the challenges high-poverty urban communities face, targeted support is important, but to increase equity in service-learning, other contexts in which youth's access to quality civic interventions are limited should be a concern.