The Power of Service-Learning: One School’s Quest

I had no idea when I started this experience how much real learning I would actually do. So much of the understanding of something is not found in a book or classroom experience. It was only when I could actually experience the learning that it held true understanding and meaning for me. –Excerpt from a Quest student’s reflection.

In 2000, Quest High School in Humble, Texas was named a National Service-Learning Leader School, a designation that fewer than sixty schools in the United States had received at the time of the award. Sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Leader Schools are charged with continuing their excellence in service-learning while assisting other schools in making service-learning a part of their communities and curriculum. In 2002, Quest was named a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership, making it only one of six public high schools to ever be named in the United States. Quest is one of only two public high schools in the nation to win both awards. We have achieved this by combining a strong service-learning program and a concentrated effort of our faculty and staff to build relationships with students to create a culture of caring and civic responsibility.

How the Quest Began
Quest High School is an eleven-year old school designed by teachers, administrators, students and community members. We are a small school of 235 students, an Annenberg Challenge Grant Beacon School, a First Amendment School and a Coalition of Essential Schools Mentor School. We began our design process with several assumptions in mind, including the commitment that we would use the best practices that school reform models offered. We researched extensively, visited many schools and as a result, during the design process we asked, “What do students need to know to be successful in the real world?” In other words, what do students need to know beyond the definition of success on any formal assessment, beyond graduation, beyond college admittance? How could Quest create learning for life?

Our questioning and research led us to create a “three-dimensional” model of curriculum, the Quest Cube (see page seven for an illustration of this model). The first category, or “side” of the three dimensional model, is made up of five learner behaviors: problem-solving and critical thinking, self-discipline and social cooperation, wellness and aesthetic appreciation, communication, and citizenship and concern for the environment.

The second dimension contains the eight academic foundations that provide the content for acquiring the essential learner behaviors: English language arts, mathematics, science, social science, foreign language, health and physical education, career education and creative and performing arts.

The third dimension represents the workplace tools that are necessary for applying the essential learner behaviors and academic foundations to the real world: systems, resources, technology, information, and interpersonal skills. These tools are drawn from the United States Department of Labor’s Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report, entitled “What Work Requires of Schools.” When the three dimensions come together, the Quest Cube’s message is that the tools are what a student uses to acquire the behaviors within the context of academic foundations.

Living the Quest
In our planning, we realized that a curriculum-supported service-learning model would help students practice and master both affective and cognitive domain objectives from our curriculum. This model involves application of learning in a real world context, whereas other models are typically confined to the classroom. In addition, this model has the added benefit of actually addressing a community need, therefore giving the learning a deeper, more personal meaning to students.

When Quest first opened in 1995, we piloted a service program in several elementary schools and in a convalescence home. Because we saw much success and great potential for the practice of the learner behaviors and a working knowledge of careers, we expanded the program to over 20 sites in 1996. This trend continues, and we presently have over 40 sites because students readily create their own service sites to meet their individual needs and the needs they see in their community. Every Wednesday morning, each Quest student is bussed or drives to these sites and serves three hours. Sites range from elementary schools in the district where students might teach reading or assist teachers in other ways to a nature park where students perform shows for children or beautifying the park itself. Other sites include rest homes, women’s shelters and the district’s central office.

Our site partners assess the students and our students assess themselves using reflective practices including inquiry and self reflection. This is all done in the context of the above-mentioned curriculum. Quest High School service-learning initiatives have included:

  • Students developed and piloted a computer literacy training project for adult English language learners currently attending ESL classes at a program housed in the same building as Quest.
  • In conjunction with a local human services agency, students solicited sustained community contributions of services—hair styling, cosmetic services, clothing, car repair—that support economically disadvantaged women in the job search process.
  • Students created a resource guide for teachers, youth workers and parents to use in breaking down cultural stereotyping and prejudice among groups of young people.
  • Students created a sustainable program linking elementary school students with elderly residents of a nearby nursing home through mutual visits, correspondence and invitational programs.
  • Students created activities for fifth-grade students aimed at fostering respect for diversity and resolving conflicts in non-violent ways.
  • Students increased volunteer involvement, including improvements to building and grounds, at a local adult day care center for people with mental and physical handicaps.


Links to Our Curriculum
As students practice their affective and cognitive skills in various settings and projects over time, the power of this kind of learning became apparent. Service-learning began to move naturally into our core courses and eventually became an integral part of our capstone senior experience.

For example, ninth through twelfth students in biology and chemistry classes designed and participated in water quality projects, partnering with a local nature park and Texas Watch, a non-partisan, advocacy organization working to improve consumer and insurance protections for Texas families, as well as preserving consumers’ rights and protections. The curricular components of the project included collecting data from the Lake Houston watershed and reporting findings to the Texas Watch data network, developing cross-curricular units focused around the ecology and conservation of the Lake Houston watershed and addressing related TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) in a field and laboratory setting. The service components included developing cascading mentor relationships within the Humble ISD, creating a volunteer network to report data to the Texas Watch database, developing community awareness of watershed conservation issues, and providing a community outreach program to train volunteer monitors. Students participating in the project were able to master biology and chemistry objectives while having a very positive impact on their community.

Beyond our core courses, service-learning also entered into our senior culminating experience. Since we believed students need the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in a deep way, we developed a service-learning opportunity called social action within the Senior Exploratory, a culminating semester-long group research project in which students must demonstrate what they have learned in order to graduate. In this context, students are asked to design, implement, and evaluate their own sustainable service-learning project. This project is directly tied to their research topic and the curriculum. Its purpose is to enhance and deepen research while students address a community issue or problem via a social action plan. The culminating event of the senior exploratory is a Senior Exhibition, in which students must present their social action as well as justify sustainability.

These social action projects encourage deep analytical thinking, meaningful collaboration, skill development, and authentic application of knowledge. For example, two senior groups (nine students) paired with Lowe’s Home Improvement, Wal-Mart, Administaff, and Humble Area Assisted Ministries and chose five home sites of elderly and impoverished people. Together, they generated o ver $50,000 in materials and money and brought together over 150 people to refurbish these homes. Students and adults from the community came together, and the results were phenomenal. Three other schools in the community became involved, and some incredible transformations of homes occurred. One trailer home was in such disarray that one of the volunteers actually purchased a new trailer for the elderly owners who are both in very poor health and were living in deplorable conditions. Other sites had wheelchair ramps built, were re-floored, repainted, and re-landscaped, and had new hot water heaters installed; literally hundreds of improvements were made. The recipients had their lives changed, as did the lives of the students and volunteers.

Another project was the creation of a Volunteer Night at the Humble Civic Center that featured over 50 local volunteer organizations. Quest seniors organized the event, advertised and spread the word, and over 600 residents came to the volunteer night and signed up to work for the volunteer organizations. In addition, a senior group hosted a series of public forums to bring awareness to sexual assault crimes; this group received a proclamation from the Humble mayor for their actions. In response to the estimation that over a million rape kits with unanalyzed DNA samples sit on the shelves of police stations, another group determined ways to advocate the funding of the forensic processing of the DNA so that these types of crimes are solved and sexual predators are off our streets. One of their angles was to create press releases and send letters to state legislators and congressional leaders urging them to support legislation to fund the DNA processing of rape kits. During their investigation of forensics and crime investigation, another group of students learned of The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to the investigation of legal cases that might have resulted in wrongful convictions. This group of students joined law students at the University of Houston Law School in investigating an actual case. Finally, a group planned and enacted an information seminar on the young women and the dangers they often face to look beautiful in America. Using experts in the field, as well as testimonies from those recovering from eating disorders, the group focused on self-esteem issues, eating disorders and risks of plastic surgery. The seminar targeted pre-teens, teens, parents and teachers. All of these projects deepened students’ understanding of complex social issues, and provided an avenue for addressing something they really cared about.

As part of their senior year culminating work, Quest seniors reflected on their sustainable social action projects:

  • I think that this project gave me an understanding of the subject that I could not have gained through research alone. Being able to actually work for your cause rather than only report about it gives you a deep emotional connection to your topic, and I know it motivated me to learn and do more than I thought I could.
  • While involved with the Innocence Network, our group gained an up close and personal look at how the values of individuals affect the lives of those they have authority over. Sometimes this is detrimental. We learned that on many cases, the actions of one lazy lawyer have led to wrongful convictions, and that sometimes courts appointed lawyers don’t do justice to the justice system. We have also learned that we can do something about this issue, and that more Americans need to be aware of this problem. We realized that we can really make a difference in someone’s life, and that is empowering. I can’t believe the important work that I actually did.
  • Our social action plan was uncovered during our research. We discovered that there were many problems with funding and processing rape kits. In fact, thousands of rape kits sit unanalyzed in our country because of lack of knowledge and funding. We created a project that would directly impact the lives of victims, and in doing so we felt so good about ourselves. It’s so rare to really learn and act on something you really care about.
  • There was never a doubt in my mind that our project would not be able to remain sustainable. After such a great turn out on Make a Difference Day, Lowe’s Heroes, along with other organizations and schools, want to take on this project in the future. We have created a strong foundation for others to build upon and make an even greater difference than we have already made. All journeys begin with the first step, and I am proud to say that we are the ones that took it, and in the future I will lead initiatives because I now have the confidence to do so.
  • I am a very shy individual, but I have been pushed into the spotlight enough times during this experience that I have become more comfortable with expressing my knowledge and getting my message across.
  • I didn’t know learning could be so fun and so hard at the same time. This is the highlight of my high school experience.
  • In a project like this, you cannot afford to fail. We laid out specific goals and criteria and they had to be met because other people counted on us to deliver. Organization and time management are imperative when you have a large task to carryout with other people to count on.
  • I am a born perfectionist, mainly of myself though. I am very proud of our work, and proud of the contributions that I, myself made. Despite the tribulations, we achieved our main goal that we established at the beginning: to help those individuals that need it most. I believe we have exceeded that goal, as-a-matter-of-fact. The road was bumpy, but that was expected.
  • It is a wonderful feeling to know that you personally contributed to another’s happiness. That your hard work was exchanged for a simple smile. I do not need a pat on the back, or congratulations because I have already gotten that. I have gotten more than I had bargained for, a better community.
  • I consider myself a slacker, and this experience showed me that I have some real hidden talents, including researching and technology. I now know I have some pretty good skills to offer a group, and I won’t get by anymore by being dead weight.
  • I discovered what it means to really know something, to know it so well that it consumes me.


Clearly, the reflections indicate that seniors are experiencing powerful learning from real-life endeavors. Service-learning seems to consistently provide such experiences for our students.

The Quest for Living Our Mission
Aside from being tied to our standards and being a part of the school’s culture, we feel service-learning provides an opportunity to foster strong civic responsibility and citizenship. For example, we fervently believe that by linking affective and cognitive domain objectives to service, we allow our students to live the mission statement of Quest: “Quest High School will provide a personalized learning experience in partnership with the community to create life-long learners and productive members of society.” The critical components of our mission statement are common to many mission statements of many schools; the question we try to answer with service-learning is how can students authentically fulfill the mission of the school? We believe that students are able to accomplish the lofty goals of our mission because we provide them with opportunities to learn to serve and serve to learn on a continuous basis while asking them to respond reflectively to how they are fulfilling the curriculum objectives and outcomes.

Additionally as a CES Mentor School, we believe that service-learning in its many facets at Quest helps us to “live” the CES Common Principles, particularly:

  • Helping students learn to use their minds well: Service-learning demands that students use their minds well. The learning around a service-learning experience is unpredictable, unscripted, applied and personal. Students really have to utilize their knowledge from within to solve a community issue. For example, a group of students who are studying the complexities of child abuse get a different and deeper perspective of its root causes when they work in a children’s asssessment center and discuss solutions to this issue with abusive parents.
  • Emphasizing depth over breadth: Service-learning asks students to investigate and research a real life issue. In order even to begin to understand an issue, let alone begin to solve it, students must have a firm grasp of the specifics and complexities of the issue they are confronting. Given that most societal issues are interconnected and have multiple causes, depth is a necessity. For example, in order to investigate homelessness, a group has to understand the root causes of poverty. Then to impact the issue, the students have to have a firm grip on the multitude of variables within this topic.
  • Embracing student as worker: Service-learning places students front and center in the learning process. Because students are empowered to make an impact on a need in the community, they take on the leader role, while the teacher becomes the coach and advisor. For example, a group of students investigates an issue such as racial intolerance. They research this issue, become invested in it and become compelled to address it in a meaningful way. It consumes them and their learning becomes active and engaged. They aren’t simply learning for a good grade; they are learning for what they considerto be an “important cause.” Students work very hard when they believe in something.


Where Do We Go?
Four years ago, Quest, by far the smallest high school in the Humble Independent School District, was the only school with a commitment to service-learning and the only school with a service-learning coordinator. But despite our small size, Quest has had a huge impact. Currently, Humble ISD has over 6,900 students participating in service-learning. We have a district level service-learning leadership team, a process committee team, five campus level leadership teams, and over 215 practioners and staff—and service-learning continues to grow in the district. In addition, all five high schools in Humble ISD have campus service-learning coordinators, and campus coordinators are emerging at the elementary level. The Quest model has inspired the building of service-learning capacity, as well as serving as a scaffold for the development of a service-learning culture.

And the timing is right. The Humble Independent School District has been focused on the idea of how practioners personalize learning and on authentic education. Authentic learning is one that directly connects to the lives of students, and service-learning when done well, does that better than anything. Service-learning can emerge as an authentic and powerful pedagogy within this conversation about how you deliver what it is you want kids to know and be able to do. In addition, former Quest leaders including assistant superintendent Cecilia Hawkins, and Atascocita High School principal Lawrence Kohn have left Quest but have brought to their new postitions knowledge, expertise and beliefs. Under their leadership, along with the leadership of the district servic learning board, service-learning will be a part of all Humble high school students’ experience. Our challenge is make sure that it is an integral part, not only in enhancing and deepening the learning of core curriculum, but also to address the affective domain of all students’ learning. The culture and the direction of who we are and what we believe is transforming well beyond the walls of Quest and deep into the core of our district—a movement that will ultimately benefit all students.

As Kim Huseman mentions in this article, Quest High School is a CES Mentor School and part of the CES Small Schools Project. For more on Mentor Schools and the Small Schools Project, please visit

The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS)
In 1990, United States Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole appointed a commission to determine the skills our young people need to succeed in the world of work. The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills is usually referred to as SCANS and the SCANS report still serves as a meaningful guide for curriculum and pedagogical planning designed to help students make productive transitions from school to work.

The SCANS Report outlines the need for education to provide a foundation of basic skills, thinking skills and learning qualities that support the teaching and learning of five competencies: identifying, organizing, planning and allocating resources; the interpersonal ability to work with others; acquiring and using information; understanding the complex inter-relationships of systems; and working with a variety of technologies.

For more on the SCANS report, please visit

Details, Details, Details—
What a Service-Learning Specialist Does

The logistics of our Wednesday service-learning program are tricky and demand orchestration from a variety of directions. We have to make sure our transportation partners are clear as to their roles and responsibilities so that students get the right places at the right times. We must ensure that our work site partners are clear about their role and responsibilities and that we have developed a quality relationship so they will voice concerns or issues. We have to design communication systems so that our partners have easy access to us and vice versa. Finally, and most importantly, we have to “upload” procedures and training into our students so that they are prepared and ready to enter the real world—not simply to exist there, but to impact it in a positive way. (Then of course we also ensure we have a plan that reaches out to our students when they discover that in some way they aren’t ready for the real world.) In some ways, to pull this off, you have to be the resilient. It is not all in your control, not everything will go as planned, and you will make mistakes. But if the real focus is student learning and self-growth, then even with the bumps and bruises, the rewards are profoundly positive.

Kim Huseman is the Service-Learning Specialist at Quest High School and she teaches social action in the integrated Exploratory Foundation classes at Quest High School. Huseman is also on the board of the National Service-Learning Partnership.

Lawrence Kohn, Quest High School’s former principal, is the principal of Atascocita High School, a new school in the Humble Independent School District.