Spotlights on Community-Based Learning: The Center for Technical Education and Wildwood School

By most measures, the Center for Technical Education in Leominster, Massachusetts and the Wildwood Secondary School in Los Angeles seem to be vastly different sorts of schools: public, East coast, working-class and decades-old versus private, West coast, generally wealthy and newly founded. In many ways, they define the maxim “no two good schools are alike.” Yet these two small schools share a key characteristic: a commitment to meaningful community-based learning that is integral to their curricula, designs and assessment systems. In quite different ways the Center for Technical Education and Wildwood School rely on the strength of connections forged between the “adult world” and young people’s community-based work. Horace shines a spotlight on each, illuminating two very different approaches to community-school learning partnerships.

Cooperative Education at the Center for Technical Education Richard Mailloux, coordinator of cooperative and educational services at the Center for Technical Education (CTE), recalled that Ted Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and central Massachusetts resident, visited CTE and recognized a student—because the student had fixed his house’s pipes as a local plumber’s apprentice. “Now that,” said Mailloux with a laugh, “is student as worker!”

Cooperative education is a feature of all Massachusetts vocational-technical programs, placing qualified juniors and seniors in actual paying jobs in their fields of study to gain experiences and skills above and beyond those available through their in-school shop environments. Students are paid for their work, accrue hours needed for licensure and earn academic credit. Mailloux connects cooperative education students with employers—often CTE graduates themselves—who can deal well with students in a safe work environment. Periodic check-ins and progress reports help students, employers, Mailloux and CTE’s shop teachers stay in touch and evaluate students’ work.

“They’re out there learning and experiencing the real work of work; they also bring experience and talent. That’s the nature of the cooperative relationship. Otherwise, it’s just free labor,” observed Mailloux. Students’ schedules allow them to spend a full week at a time at their work sites. “If the job runs from seven to four,” described Mailloux, “they’re there every day swinging hammers and hauling and cutting lumber, the same as the craftsmen that they’re learning from.”

The cooperative nature of the student-employer relationship creates other productive connections between CTE and the larger Leominster community. The various CTE shops rely on professional expertise from the trade to stay current, and cooperative education employers often serve on CTE advisory committees. “Two years ago, our machine shop was moribund. It was brought back to life by an advisory committee that made contacts and got equipment,” said Mailloux. Employers also play a role in assessing senior projects, sometimes benefiting from CTE students’ work, such as when a local plumber adapted a senior project on professional workplace behavior.

The cooperative education program strengthens community connections long established between the citizens of the Leominster area and CTE. For decades, in conjunction with the Leominster city government, the local Lions Club, and more recently Habitat for Humanity, CTE students have participated in a house building program that has built an estimated 50 houses in the city. This year, CTE students are working on a house for a family with a child with a physical disability who requires ramps and other accommodations. Building on a city-donated corner lot, with donations from local developers, builders, and suppliers, the year-long project involves staff and students from multiple CTE shops, among them carpentry, drafting, electrical, heating/ventilation/air conditioning and plumbing. Once the house is, as Mailloux describes, “tight to the weather,” qualified students can then continue to work in the community in other cooperative education placements.

Reflecting on his work coordinating CTE’s cooperative education program, Mailloux observes, “I was an English teacher for 31 years, have always had trade kids and always kept my roots in the shops. Seeing students working with their hands and their heads allows you to deal with them as individual people. It is so easy if you’re in academic component of a big school system to teach classes instead of students. 25 kids march in, 25 kids march out. We see kids working in multiple ways and have built-in systems of working with them as individuals.” Based on knowing his students well, Mailloux places them on job sites with confidence, knowing that their work is integral to their own educational success and to the maintenance and strengthening of bonds between the school and the community.

Community Service Schoolwide at Wildwood School Wildwood School, an independent K-12 school in Los Angeles and CES Mentor School, describes itself as a “private school with a public mission.” Rasheda Carroll, Director of Community Programs, leads Wildwood’s secondary school, staff and students to integrate community service into the school day, combining off-campus community-based learning with on-campus service, and weaving the community-based work into students’ classroom curricula. From sixth grade through the end of senior year, Carroll estimates that Wildwood secondary school students will complete 160 hours of service.

Seventh and eighth grade students engage in year-long community service projects, choosing among four themes: AIDS education, ocean and environment, animals, and diversity within Los Angeles. Students spend the first quarter of the year in research on campus, listening to speakers, and going on fieldtrips. In the following quarter, they do the service: for example, cleaning up beaches or raising funds for an African AIDS orphans organization. Students then return to campus to share their knowledge with other Wildwood students through presenting what they learned and have done. For the final quarter of the year, students engage in reflection through projects, writing and discussion. To assess their work, advisors have created a rubric that offers a timeline, outlines goals and assesses students on core concepts including awareness of the community, civic engagement and understanding of personal impact and responsibility.

In ninth and tenth grades, says Carroll, Wildwood is “more strategic about getting kids out in the community and building real relationships.” Along with their advisors, students work in the community two mornings a week at Venice, California’s St. Joseph’s Center, a nonprofit community organization that assists low-income families, the elderly and people who are homeless. Other Wildwood staff and students work at Westside Children’s Center. “We found organizations that we are able to support, not burden, and we’ve developed solid relationships,” says Carroll. Working directly with people in need at St. Joseph’s, for example, students staff an on-site restaurant, serving food, refilling coffee and cleaning up. They distribute food from the center’s pantry, distribute mail and are otherwise, in Carroll’s words, “pretty hands on.”

Building reciprocal relationships between Wildwood students and the community organizations has presented specific challenges. “Our kids are teenagers with attitudes sometimes. Staff members try to work hard to do something special for us, and they are sometimes greeted with teenage ambivalence. Of course they feel disappointment. And as much as we want to serve others, we need to make sure that our children get something out of this—they are giving up a lot of potential class time. At one point at St. Joseph’s, some of the staff were unresponsive to us and our kids were not engaged, so I pulled kids from those placements. The staff there pushed to have us back, but I held off. We talked a lot, and they came back with three different position descriptions for students that better met everyone’s needs. The situation completely turned around, because we knew we were in this together and we willing to find ways to make it work for everyone involved.”

Carroll and other staff member at Wildwood are working to create the kind of curriculum integration for the ninth and tenth grade community-based learning that the school has created for seventh and eight grade students. At various points in the year, students will be engaged in reflective activities, thinking about what a community is, drawing images of their homes and what makes them special and otherwise connecting to topic of homelessness in Los Angeles.

During their junior and senior years, students alternate between community involvement on campus and offsite internships. On campus, for five hours a week, juniors assist Carroll in her work, run diversity programs, write bulletins for the school’s advancement department and conduct school tours. Off campus, juniors put in 75 hours at internships that they find for themselves or that Carroll and other staff members help identify. Seniors do the same time but devote 125 hours to their off-campus internships. At the same time, seniors prepare and present a Community Contribution exhibition required for graduation.

Wildwood’s Head of School Hope Boyd says the community-based service-learning that Wildwood requires of its students helps them make transitions to adulthood. “We’re still working on making the learning that our students do off-campus seamless with the rest of their learning. And we’re going to make it happen as well as possible, because this is so central to what we believe. Part of our work is preparing young people to be true citizens of the world. We can’t isolate them from the adult work and world that we expect them to become a part of. I don’t see any other way to prepare kids for their role in the world. We can’t say that we’re preparing them to be adults and isolate them in a world of adolescents.”

Leominster’s Center for Technical Education offers a variety of programs in which students specialize:
Auto Technology
Culinary Arts
Collision Repair
Health Occupations
Heating, Ventilation/Air Conditioning
Machine Technology

Part of Leominster High School, The Center for Technical Education participates in the CES Small Schools Project as, with the help of CES Mentor School Parker Charter Essential School, Leominster High School converts itself into five small schools.

To culminate their community involvement experience, Wildwood seniors are required to design and execute their own independent community involvement project. Among the 2006 graduates’ projects were:

  • An original cookbook of Catalonian food, featuring both traditional and new recipes. Proceeds from the book’s sale went to UNICEF to help children in Darfur.
  • A bowling party for Wildwood students in order to raise money for heart operations for Vietnamese children. Along with the efforts of two other students who sold bracelets that were made on their trip to Vietnam, this work raised almost $4,000, enough for seven surgeries.
  • Gender retreats for Wildwood’s Division Two girls and boys. These daylong programs allowed middle school students to explore gender roles, images in the media, and what it means to be a girl or boy through a number of activities.
  • With other Wildwood musicians, a Music4Music concert that raised money to begin an instrumental program at CityLife Downtown Charter School (also a CES school).

Related Resource
For a look at Wildwood School’s personalized approach to assessment, see “Elements of Smallness Create Conditions for Success,” Horace 19.1.