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UA Little Rock Partners with Engage AR to Study Expansion of Youth Volunteering and Community-Service Learning in Arkansas

Dr. Derek Slagle
Dr. Derek Slagle

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Public Affairs and Engage AR, a unit of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education, are studying how to expand youth volunteer and community-service learning (CSL) opportunities in the state of Arkansas.

Engage AR has been instrumental in the development of and promotion of service learning since the passage of Act 648 of 1993, which allows for high school students in Arkansas to earn one credit towards graduation through the completion of 75 hours of ‘Community Service-Learning,’ said Shana Chaplin, director of Engage AR. “Most significantly, the service learning opportunity serves to expose youth to the processes and mechanisms used to address critical social issues, while also providing experiential learning of the social issues facing their community.”

Engage AR is one of 11 state service commissions who received a $20,000 grant from America’s Service Commissions to support their capacity in expanding youth service in their respective states during the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The funding was made possible by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation through a two-year grant to America’s Service Commissions.

Each grant recipient is assessing the current youth service landscape and exploring opportunities to expand the quality and/or quantity of youth service opportunities in their respective states, with a focus on middle-school and high school youth that are less likely to be engaged in service.

With the grant funding, the UA Little Rock Survey Research Center and School of Public Affairs students produced the report “Community Service Learning: 2021 Assessment of Arkansas’ High Schools.”

Students and professors at UA Little Rock created a survey to assess the implementation of community service learning courses in high school in Arkansas. They surveyed and/or interviewed about 50 educators from 26 school districts in Arkansas who are responsible for developing and implementing community service learning plans in schools.

“I expect this will be a long-term partnership between UA Little Rock and the state agencies,” said Derek Slagle, director of the Survey Research Center and a commissioner of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on National Service and Volunteerism. “We are at a critical juncture to build up support for teachers that are implementing community-service learning. The COVID-19 pandemic decimated a lot of community partnerships, and we are trying to rebuild those connections between educators and the organizations that would benefit from service learning.”

The report includes several recommendations on how community service learning can be improved in Arkansas. The researchers recommended that the Arkansas Department of Education in collaboration with Engage AR develop a statewide specialized training program to aid educators in developing CSL programs. The researchers also recommended the addition of a CSL coordinator who can provide support for CSL implementation and evaluation across the state as well as the creation of a CSL program evaluation to assess the CSL programs.

“Service learning has been available to districts for over 25 years,” Chaplin said. “The initial research confirmed broad discrepancies in the use of the Service Learning Credit, much of which is attributable to lack of resources and designated school personnel.  The second phase of research will help to identify districts with robust, highly effective Service Learning Credit programs, developing resources of best practices. The research will also help to identify underperforming school districts whose students could benefit from having a robust service learning opportunity available. Engage AR will commit resources and funding to support the development of one or more model service learning opportunities, leveraging its relationship with municipalities and community based programs.  Of importance is ensuring at risk and under-represented students have access to the Service Learning Credit.”

The researchers found that one of the most difficult barriers to starting a community-service learning program is connecting educators with partner organizations. Engage AR, which already has a volunteer platform on its website, plans to enhance its online web presence to help promote, connect, and align service-learning opportunities and resources with schools implementing CSL in the curriculum.

“It’s important that we help teachers find and vet partners to collaborate with on CSL projects,” said Dr. Kirk Leach, assistant professor of public administration and coordinator of the Center for Nonprofits. “The school works with a non-profit, state agency, or external organization to address a community need. The teachers who are implementing service learning in their classrooms may not have the time or capacity to form those external partnerships. Engage AR could be the bridge between the schools and the community partners.”

While working on the survey, Slagle and Leach also worked with Engage AR to apply for a grant to extend their research. UA Little Rock received a $20,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation that funds a graduate assistant in the School of Public Affairs and will fund a youth service learning forum that UA Little Rock will host during summer 2022.

“As part of this project funded by Mott, we want to try to get an understanding of the gaps in community-service learning and youth service commitments among underrepresented students in Arkansas,” Leach said. “How do we provide equitable access to service-learning opportunities for underrepresented students?”

UA Little Rock students from the Master of Public Administration and the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management programs conducted research on the project during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters.

MPA students who worked on the project include Saja Al-Quzweeni, Alicia Dorn, Amy Theriac, Erica Torrence, Kelly Troillett, Cassie Jo Gehring, Sondia Amoko, Amber McCuien, Faith Thomas, Jenifer Tindle, Angela Logue, Nelly Otoo, Ebony Duren, Marina Criollo Ventres, and Cortney Warwick.

Graduate students who are earning a certificate in nonprofit management that worked on the project include Ebony Duren, Geneva Galloway, Cassie Gehring, Heather Reed, Brittany Olloway, and Samantha Wiley.