Service-Learning in NYC Schools: Outcomes and Lessons Learned


diahann billings-burford nyc service colin powell center learning By Diahann Billings-Burford, Chief Service Officer of NYC Service.

Last month, NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and I celebrated the accomplishments of more than 587,000 students who participated in service during the 2011-2012 school year as part of the City’s Service in Schools initiative. Thirty schools were recognized for student participation in projects that included working on a sustainable organic farm serving Crown Heights and leading workshops for elementary school students as part of City Year’s Young Heroes program in Hunts Point.

Our Service in Schools initiative, a partnership of the Department of Education and NYC Service, encourages student participation in service of any kind. But since our launch in 2009 we’ve seen that the greatest impact on academic performance and student engagement is a result of service-learning.

This finding is not a new one. A 2008 study found that over 80 percent of students who participated in service learning said they had more positive feelings about attending high school, and over 75 percent of service-learning students said that service-learning had motivated them to work hard.


We know this to be true in practice as well – 95 percent of participants in buildOn’s afterschool program, which engages high school students in service-learning with a global focus, graduate and go on to college.  buildOn serves in schools in NYC that have overall graduation rates of 73 percent.

Why Service-Learning Works

Service-learning works for the student because it integrates curriculum into real life outcomes. It requires students to take what they’ve learned in biology class about healthy ecosystems and put it to use by cleaning up their neighborhood park. Through hands-on processing of that classroom knowledge, and a tangible connection to the broader community, students’ learning experiences are enhanced while they simultaneously develop an appetite for civic engagement.

Service-learning works for society because it requires our youth to engage in their community and add value. We believe strongly in the power of service-learning to transform a student’s understanding of the world and of their role in it, because the focus of service-learning is the community and not the individual. That’s why the award for our Service in Schools honorees this year was not a cash prize as in years past, but rather professional development training for the school staff who plan and integrate service-learning. That’s why at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service last month, I gave a workshop with service-learning expert Cathy Berger Kaye on implementing impactful service-learning programs.

Taking It to Scale

There are nearly as many ideas about improving education as there are students. Service-learning is one worth taking to scale. Because it can be modified to any age group and any subject area, educators need only to integrate a culture of service into their teaching practices to strengthen both student performance and our communities at large. Most importantly, it is worth taking to scale for the future of our world. We would be training educated leaders and followers with a belief that they should be engaged in society. — Diahann Billings-Burford

Learn more or find volunteer opportunities at NYC Service.

As New York City’s first Chief Service Officer, Diahann Billings-Burford leads NYC Service, a city-wide initiative to promote volunteerism.Read more about her and our other contributors

Read More about Service-Learning at the Colin Powell Center: Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part I) Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part II) Toward “Just Relationships”: Tania Mitchell at NYMAPS