Community Service and Service-Learning in U.S. Public Schools, 2004

Peter C. Scales, Ph.D., and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

Each year, thousands of public schools across the United States engage students in community service and service-learning. For some schools, these activities are opportunities to encourage young people to see their place in addressing community needs. In other schools, serving others is a central educational strategy in which the service is a hands-on learning experience that is carefully integrated into the school’s core curriculum.

Given the interest in and support for youth service engagement—and the potential benefits for young people, schools, and society—it is vital from time to time to examine what kinds of community service and service- learning are actually taking place in U.S. schools. This examination can lead heightened awareness of these positive experiences for young people while also offering insights into strengthening policy and practice.

As part of its initiative, Growing to Greatness: The State of Service- Learning Project, the National Youth Leadership Council commissioned Westat, Inc. (in consultation with Search Institute and Brandeis University) to conduct a national study of community service and service- learning in U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools. The survey was made possible with the generous support of the State Farm Companies Foundation.

This report presents initial findings from this study of 1,799 public school principals1 in a nationally representative sample of public elementary, middle, and high schools in January and February 2004. (For more on the study sample and methodology, see the appendix.) The study examines the scope and nature of community service and service-learning in public schools in the United States. (For the definitions used for community service and service-learning, see Figure 1.)

This study updates a comparable benchmark study of community service and service-learning conducted in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Education (Skinner & Chapman, 1999). In addition to this new study providing an updated snapshot of the field, similar survey instruments and sampling methodologies in both surveys allow for trend analyses across the past five years.

Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)
  • high school (14-18 years old)