Volume 3, Number 1
Norwalk Community College Service Learning Program
Benefits College and Community
Madeline K. Barillo
Middle school kids are called “tweens” for good reason: They’re too old for daycare but too young to be left home alone after school.
Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Norwalk, Connecticut, cares about community youth. When the college learned that local children were at risk because their after-school program lacked adequate space, it offered to host a program on campus and provide student volunteers to serve as tutors and mentors. The volunteers are part of a recently launched service learning program that gives students the opportunity to earn college credits while giving back to the community.
In September 2007, Norwalk Community College provided a free, permanent home in its West Campus building for the after-school program conducted by Family and Children’s Agency (FCA), a Norwalk-based family-serving agency that helps individuals struggling with life’s challenges, including poverty and homelessness. The program enrolls 25 children in grades six to eight. “They needed a site and we had space that was underutilized in the afternoon,” said Pamela Edington, Dean of Academic Affairs at Norwalk Community College. “It also provided an opportunity for our students to work as role models to a diverse population of learners.”
Before relocating to NCC, the FCA after school program was housed in the city library’s auditorium. The program was thriving, but the children were displaced whenever the auditorium was needed for other community events such as book sales and tax preparation sessions. In addition, FCA was not able to offer the kind of recreation and enrichment programming it wanted due to the space constraint.
Since September, that’s all changed. The middle schoolers have a permanent place to go after school and have become active “college” students at NCC. Every Monday through Thursday, the students are bused to the college after school for an afternoon of recreation, enrichment activities, and homework assistance from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. Instead of coming home to an empty house or hanging out on the streets, they learn cool things like African drumming with an NCC music professor, or use the fitness center for health and wellness activities.
FCA administers the after school program and NCC provides classroom and kitchen space, access to the college’s computer lab and gym, and special programming. Each day when the kids arrive at the college, they are provided with a healthy snack followed by 45 minutes of recreation or enrichment programming. Then it’s time for reading quietly or doing homework with an NCC student mentor by their side.
NCC Service Learning is Global and Local
Norwalk Community College’s service learning program was formally launched in fall 2007. It provides an option for students to do community service as part of a college course while earning academic credit. Because of the time commitment, students who elect the service learning option are given special accommodations. For example, they may be exempt from writing a research paper or taking the final course exam.
The program began as a pilot project last summer when NCC provided service learning opportunities for 12 students enrolled in a Spanish immersion course taught in Nagarote, Nicaragua. The students earned six credits while living with host families for three weeks in the rural village north of Managua. As part of the service experience, they helped villagers paint and landscape a one-room schoolhouse and served as mentors to the local children.
Also last summer, students in an NCC Adolescent Psychology class volunteered with the FCA Stars program, a five-week college experience program held at the college for middle school children.
Since September, the service learning option has expanded. Eight faculty members now offer community service opportunities in 11 classes. Twenty-five NCC students have participated to date. They are placed in both on-campus and off-campus sites including the college’s Tutoring Center and the FCA After School Program as well as a local senior center, an agency for the homebound elderly, a residential program for homeless families, and a program for men with HIV.
The students perform a variety of functions, from tutoring children to serving as conversation partners with Spanish-speaking seniors. One 19-year-old male student in the program formed a close bond with the 89-year-old homebound woman for whom he did weekly grocery shopping. The woman lived alone and looked forward to his weekly help and visits. At the end of the 10-week course, the NCC student decided to continue the relationship with her.
A Corporation Helps Out
NCC’s after school program recently got a shot in the arm with a $50,000 grant from UBS, a global financial services corporation headquartered near the college in Stamford, Connecticut. UBS is a champion of Norwalk Community College and a generous supporter of youth-oriented programs. The grant will enable NCC to increase the number of service learning volunteers and utilize more college resources. Under consideration are lectures and hands-on experiences in the NCC culinary arts kitchen, television studio, and music room.
Program organizers hope to do a kickboxing class with the middle school children and offer more instruction in the college’s computer lab. They also are considering a field trip to their benefactor, UBS, for a tour of the corporation’s financial trading floor, which is the largest in the world.
Benefits to the College and Its Students
By bringing middle school children to campus, NCC is exposing them at an early age to the college experience and showing them that college is something to which they can aspire. The partnership also cultivates a future NCC student body and supports the federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative to increase college preparedness. NCC is planning a research component to the after-school project and will track the children’s academic progress and satisfaction with the experience.
Service learning is especially worthwhile for community college students, who have pressing demands on their time. By building the community service component into a course syllabus, NCC students who work or have family responsibilities can gain worthwhile volunteering experience during their school hours. The program is especially valuable for students planning careers in education or human services. Moreover, the service learning experience fosters a sense of civic engagement, which is the fruition of a successful learning community.
Narrowing the Achievement Gap
NCC is based in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a suburban region located about an hour north of New York City. The region is a study in socioeconomic contrasts, with communities of tremendous wealth coexisting with areas of extreme poverty. Fairfield County is home to one of the largest concentrations of corporate headquarters in the nation, and also has a large immigrant population. Nearly 17 percent of Fairfield County residents are foreign-born, and one in four speaks a language other than English at home.
Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell has charged educators statewide with working to narrow the achievement gap between the state’s neediest children and their wealthier counterparts. Service learning is one of the ways NCC leverages community partnerships to lessen the achievement gap and provide a nurturing environment for children. “Service learning is a community-based solution that comes out of Norwalk ACTS for Children. We hope to be a role model as a catalyst for community change,” said NCC President, David L. Levinson.
Based at Norwalk Community College, Norwalk ACTS for Children is a nonprofit task force of city leaders who work collaboratively to improve the lives and futures of youth, from birth through their transition into adulthood. The organization was cofounded by President Levinson.
Service learning programs such as NCC’s After School Program help prevent crime and self-destructive behaviors. The program benefits working parents by providing a safe and structured environment for their children. According to the Norwalk Board of Education, after-school programming is the top concern of public school parents in the region. The U.S. Department of Education reports that children not enrolled in an after-school program are three times more likely to experiment with drugs. They also are more likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and engage in sexual activity.
But providing a safe after-school haven is not enough. The program is geared toward improving the children’s academic performance and promoting healthy peer interactions and lifestyles. These skills translate into a student better prepared for college, and ultimately better prepared for the workforce.
Service learning also supports global awareness. It exposes students to different cultures and populations and helps them understand the interconnectedness of communities and systems. These soft skills are essential for competing in the global economy.
Looking to the Future
Norwalk Community College understands that achievement gap inequality affects learners throughout their lifespan. It begins at the gate with preschool readiness, or lack of it, and can widen during the tumultuous adolescent and precollege years.
From its award-winning Early Childhood Development Laboratory School, a statewide model for outstanding early childhood education and teacher preparation, and its Brighter Futures enrichment program for low-income preschoolers, to its successful middle school partnership with Family and Children’s Agency and its acclaimed Lifetime Learners Institute for active seniors in retirement, NCC offers learning opportunities throughout the lifespan. The college takes the long view on ways to narrow the gap and make learning lifelong.
“By utilizing our own natural resources in support of our community’s diverse populations, we are truly the community’s college,” said NCC President Levinson. “And that’s what service learning is all about.”
Madeline K. Barillo is Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Norwalk Community College.