Lara: How long have you been Director of Community Service at Sidwell Friends School (SFS) and what are some of the changes in the community service program and the attitude of SFS students towards community service over the years?
Mr. Connell: I have been the Community Service Director for the past ten years. The biggest change in the program is that we have doubled the individual service requirement for students from 30 to 60 hours, and reduced the one time group service projects by half during the same period. We made this change in the requirement because we feel that the greatest benefit that results from service is the relationships that are formed between our students and the people that they are working with. These relationships are partially a function of the amount of time that these people spend together. As a result, we feel that longer term projects help create stronger relationships.
Over the past ten years, students have become more passionate about international service and are more frequently moved to start a
club, donation drive, or some other project around this interest. It is great to see this passion, although active and continued follow-up remains a challenge as these students have so many other commitments that take their time and attention.
Lara: What are the highlights of the community service program at SFS?
Mr. Connell: If I had to come up with a word to describe the highlights of Sidwell’s program I would use the word “relationships”. Again, we have designed the program to foster strong relationships between our students and the people that they work with. But we have also designed the program to foster strong relationships between Sidwell Friends School and our partner organizations. Whether it is our twenty plus year partnership with Martha’s Table in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, or our seven year relationship with Big Creek People in Action in Caretta, West Virginia; we strive to foster long term, multi-faceted, mutually beneficial relationships with our partner agencies. As a result, we are more effective in our service work, and our partner agencies provide our students with more worthwhile, fulfilling service opportunities.
Finally, we have designed a program that maximizes opportunities for members of our community to strengthen their relationships outside the classroom. Whether it is advisories working together on Community Service Day in October, or a group of twenty students and teachers spending ten days building houses with Habitat for Humanity in Honduras in June, we provide opportunities for students and faculty to get to know one another in a variety of non-academic settings. We also try to develop projects and service trips that are a lot of fun!
Lara: What are some of the challenges the community service program faces?
Mr. Connell: The greatest challenge that the program faces is the fact that the needs are so great in our community and around the world. There are so many great people and organizations doing such amazing work, but the resources and time of our students and our school are limited. So the question is: How do we maximize the positive impact that we can have as individuals and as a school?
Another challenge that the program faces is the fact that our schedule consists of seven 45 minute class periods per day without exception. This really limits the amount of service learning (service in the classroom) that can occur at the school. Another limiting factor is that field trips are not something that are encouraged. Finally, our students are so busy with academics, sports and other extracurricular activities that it is often difficult for them to find the time to really commit to an extracurricular service project.
Lara: What plans do you have for the community service program in the upcoming years?
Mr. Connell: There are several goals that I would like to pursue over the next few years. First of all, I would like to work with individual students and service clubs to challenge
them to be more organized, networked and effective in their work.
This is a challenging part of the job because my instinct is for students to come up with their own goals and action plans, and execute those plans. But sometimes students need to hear whether their approach is likely to be successful (based on those with past experiences here at Sidwell Friends School).
I would also like to see service learning increase as a part of the curriculum in the Upper School. As I mentioned earlier, there are several challenges to succeeding in this area. Also, decisions on curriculum are always made by teachers. My role is to make teachers aware of particular service learning opportunities, and they would make the ultimate decision whether it was appropriate for their particular class. Finally, I would like to use new technologies to develop the community service program at the Upper School. For example, technologies like Skype, Myspace, and Facebook can all be used to increase the effectiveness of our students and faculty in a variety of service work.
Lara: What advice do you have for students everywhere regarding community service?
Mr. Connell: I think there is great value to challenging one’s comfort zone through volunteer service. For example, I teach a Stress management class to inmates at a local jail. Before starting this service work, I had several misconceptions about people involved in our criminal justice system. My volunteer work has dispelled these prejudices every time I walk into a classroom. And it has dispelled these misconceptions as I taught in the maximum security and mental health units in the jail. What my work has shown me is that once you get below our superficial differences (i.e. racial, religious, ethnic, class) there is so much more that we have in common as human beings than what separates us. I know that might sound trite, but I have found it to be true in nearly every interaction that I have had in the jail over the past ten years. And I think that when a person comes to this realization, he/she, and our society, are better off for it.