Schools Improvement Initiative

Report on the AERA Conference and visit to the Netter Centre: April 2016

30 May 2016 - 15:45

The AERA Conference took place in Washington DC, 8 – 12 April 2016.  As part of the Service Learning Special Interest Group (SIG), A/Prof Roshan Galvaan and I presented a paper entitled “Service learning in unequal contexts: towards transforming learning practices in South African schools”. The abstract follows:

The study is located within the Schools Improvement Initiative (SII), a university school partnership at the University of Cape Town. We examine how service learning, conceptualised as a strategy of disturbance (Butin 2010) contributed to interrupting and shifting learning practices in a semi-urban primary school in the Western Province township of Khayelitsha. We explore from the vantage point of the community, how a contextually relevant service learning programme influenced teaching and learning in this school. In response to teachers’ needs to introduce consistent homework practices, university students initiated an after school, peer-led homework programme. Bi-weekly sessions were offered to Grade Six primary school learners by Grade 11 homework mentors from a neigbouring partner school. Using a qualitative, interpretive approach, data was generated through interviews with homework mentors, student service learning reports and interviews with teachers. The findings suggest that through a contextually driven, mutually beneficial service learning programme, spaces were created to interrupt conventional learning practices allowing new opportunities to emerge in this context.

The paper was well received and complimented the three other papers in the session, all of which focused on the impact of service learning for the university students. Our focus was intentionally directed less on the university students’ experiences of the service learning programme, and more on the impact of the service learning on the Grade 11 mentors. What emerged from the study was the extent to which service learning can be used as a vehicle for community development practice. Furthermore a socially responsive service-learning model is critical in developing mutually empowering university-school partnerships and in embedding community engagement in higher education. Over and above university students engaging in service learning, it was the homeworking mentors themselves who played a key role in facilitating this. The value of providing community engagement opportunities to the homework mentors (in addition to the university students) contributed to promoting education as a civic responsibility for all, positioning both groups as mutual partners and key activators of service learning and community development.

The Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania

Following the conference, Roshan and I were hosted at the Netter Center in Philadelphia on the 13 and 14 April. A series of meetings were arranged over the two days and at the end of the first day we met with Professor Ira Harkavy, Associate Vice President and Founding Director of the Netter Center.  Joann Weeks, Associate Director organised the two-day schedule, and accompanied us on site visits to the Sayre Health Center at Sayre High School and on the second day we visited Lea Elementary School. Both schools are ‘underserved’ and are located in West Philadelphia in low SES communities. Each of the five schools that comprise the partnership with the Netter Center has its own site director who is responsible for all the programmes, most of which take place after school. The site directors are the links between the school and the Netter Center and are responsible for ensuring that the programmes address the needs of the school and that they are effectively implemented. They are also the point people for the service learning programmes of whom there are between 300-400 work study students; 300 volunteer students and 1700 service learning students per year. University-school-community programmes include sport and fitness; food and nutrition; organic garden initiatives; professional development of teachers and principals; primary health care; environmental science; social work; pipeline programmes; music; literacy and science projects.

It was very inspiring to engage with so many people involved in the Netter Center and particularly to visit the partner schools. It was particularly reassuring to know that the work of the SII and our approach to partnerships is in many ways aligned to that of the Netter Center. While we seem to be on the ‘right track’ what was clear is that the track is infinite – the approach taken is based on deep partnerships in a small cluster of schools for ‘the long haul’.