Doing Something Real: Horace interviews with Debbie Meier on Community Service

Deborah Meier began her teaching career as a kindergarten and Head Start teacher in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City. She was the founder and teacher-director of a network of highly successful public elementary schools in East Harlem. In 1985, she opened Central Park East Secondary School, one of the founding members of the Coalition of Essential Schools. She was a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. She has authored or co-authored six books, including In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas.

Between 1992 and 1996, she served as co-director the Coalition Campus Project which successfully redesigned two large failing city high schools and created a dozen new small Coalition schools. She was an advisor to New York City’s Annenberg Challenge and Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University from 1995-1997. From 1997 to 2005, she was the founder and principal of the Mission Hill School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

Currently on the faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education as senior scholar and adjunct professor, Meier is also on the board of CES and other education-related organizations.

Horace editor Jill Davidson talked with Deborah Meier about her conviction that community-based learning helps provide to young people and schools the often-missing element of connections with the adult world.

Horace: When there are so many other possibilities for meaningful learning and connections between students and teachers, why do community service?

Deborah Meier: At Central Park East Secondary School in the 1980s—when it was not a particularly well-known or widespread practice—we first started community service because we wanted to provide more concentrated time for faculty to spend working together during the school day. We thought that if we could use three hours one morning a week, plus more after school, that would solve our problem. The question, of course, was what to do with the kids? We figured that we could hire one person to send 80 kids at a time out to community service and that would pay for four teachers having the morning free. We thought it would be fun for the kids to go to interesting places, meet interesting adults doing interesting things, learn something about the city and maybe even do some good in the world. But the drive behind it actually was getting faculty the time to work together. It didn’t have much to do with any specific long-term benefits we thought the students would get.

Horace: But the CPESS staff must have thought that the students would benefit from the experiences they had, right?

Meier: Yes, but they didn’t benefit in ways that we were able to imagine at first. Most of the time, we found placements that kids might find interesting where there was easy transportation. These were always nonprofits because we thought it was supposed to be community service. But it wasn’t the community service part per se that turned out to be important to our students. They loved the idea of going around the city and doing something real. They became less parochial about knowing Harlem well but not knowing the city; they felt more belonging in Manhattan. And they benefited from knowing adults who weren’t there to teach them but took an interest in them.

And to our intrigue and, really, amazement, we eventually learn ed that those experiences had been far more powerful than we had initially realized. Over the six years they were with us, all students had made some powerful adult relationships that were important to them and their futures. They expanded the company that they kept and in many cases, this helped them get in college. We acknowledged that we had to take less credit for ourselves for getting them into college because in some cases, it was some adult they’d met who had gone to Dartmouth or somewhere else who took an interest in them and wrote letters of reference.

So when we started Mission Hill, we tried to do something similar with the older kids. But we found that it was just plain hard to do in Boston. New York—Manhattan in any case—is a very compact city. It was much easier to find things for kids to do and much easier to get them around. Also, we had two remarkable people who ran the community service project in New York and we tried to do it on the cheap in Boston by having someone do it on the side. That was harder. And the kids were younger, so there were limitations on where and how they could travel. More of the jobs turned out to be “Mickey Mouse” jobs where the kids didn’t meet grownups or have relationships with grownups that were doing things of intrinsic interest. Still, it was amazingly popular.

Based on what I saw at CPESS and Mission Hill, and informed by looking at the work that Dennis Littky does at the Met schools, my theory is that the most powerful thing missing in the lives of young people today is the company of adults, any sense of the adult world and some relationship with that world. Most of the jobs that young people tend to get on their own are in largely teenage industries, extensions of their teenage social lives. Community based-learning helps produce a more porous line between “the world” and schooling. You have to get rid of excuses. It makes it harder to say to kids things like, “Oh, you can’t wear hats, because they don’t wear hats in the real world,” because some kids will come back and say, “Well, they do where I work.” It forces the adults in the school not to pretend that they have secret knowledge that pertains to the adult world.

Horace: So it’s less about what students do than who they interact with and the relationships that they form.

Meier: I worry less than I used to that some experiences will be pointless. There are two separate issues: meaningful work and relationships with the outside world. One of the peculiar things about the way we’ve organized schools is that we often place schools at a distance from adult lives, on the outskirts of suburbs instead of in town, somewhere out there surrounded by fields. This doesn’t lend itself to students seeing people working or having connections. We’ve built schooling so it’s isolated from adult work. It wasn’t so serious when many adults left school at the age of 13 or 14 and when their family economy was dependent on their working. But today people are in school from four to 20 and schools are disconnected from other adult communities. I think it can be dangerous and the idea of finding adults who are not their parents or teachers to be part of kids’ lives is significantly important.

Horace: You said earlier that sometimes kids made meaning of their experiences in ways that the staff members in the schools didn’t expect.

Meier: When we did interviews ten years afterward about CPESS, it was startling to us how many kids brought back stories about work experiences that we hadn’t thought were very powerful. Mostly it was about the people. In some cases it was about the job, but mostly it was the people. There was a whole world that kids had engaged in through our school to which we had not paid much attention.

We tended to pay attention only when we had a strong incentive. There were some kids with whom we went out of our way to match with particular adults who would be powerful because these kids weren’t connecting with any of the adults in school. One of things that we know is that kids who don’t make connections with any of the adults in school are among the most likely to drop out. Sometimes, rarely, we consciously looked for summer or community service experiences with an adult we thought might make a connection.

There was this wonderful guy who should have been a social worker—well, maybe he was, really. His occupation was setting stereos up in rich people’s apartments. He liked young people. He was a father-ish big brother figure and he agreed to take a kid with him, as a shadow. Bob was a talker and kids had a relationship with him. He’d had an extraordinarily interesting life and he had done all kinds of interesting things. To me a person like that is delightful—to spend time with him while you were driving around New York, finding places to park, setting up equipment, listening to sound. Who we sent with Bob was a conscious plan because we knew it was a rare opportunity.

Horace: Did you feel the need to connect what the students were doing “out there” with the schools’ curricula?

Meier: Well, it certainly helped us to get to know our own kids better. If a kid didn’t show up for community service, we made calls. When kids got to the workplace, they had to call in, and the person in charge of community service called their homes if they didn’t show up at school to make sure they called the workplace. Through this, we learned a lot about kids’ home lives. Teachers don’t always have time at 8:30 in the morning to make calls and it had an impact on attendance. The person in charge of community service would write a note for the advisor about what was going on for this kid.

But she was really dissatisfied with the fact that community service didn’t really connect with what we were studying in school. But the kids were reluctant to discuss their experiences. It was like when parents say, “What did you do in school today?” And the kid says, “Nothing,” and thinks, “School belongs to me.” Part of me understands that feeling—there is so much that could be taken from those experiences. But maybe there’s a good reason not to tie them together. It wasn’t that we couldn’t find connections, though some of them weren’t quite natural. And teachers are overwhelmed with the number of ideas they have themselves. Part of it may have been trying to carry this out with teachers not totally enthusiastic about community service and who felt like they had enough on their hands. And part of it was that kids weren’t as sharing as we thought they should be.

Since we don’t do longitudinal studies in this country, who knows if, overall, community-based learning is or isn’t a significant part of students’ experiences. One of the things kids said was that CPESS and Mission Hill made them feel much more comfortable in their cities. That’s an intangible but I think it’s enormously important. Kids began to talk about certain museums like they belonged to them; they worked in them or visited so often that they knew people who worked there. Believing that the resources of the city belong to you: that’s an important outcome, I think.

Related Resource
For another example of the importance of meaningful relationships as part of an Essential education, read “A Caring Adult in a Different Setting” from Horace volume 19, issue 4: horace/19_4/heyder_letter.html