WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - This semester, the teacher behind the first service-learning, public high school class in North Carolina is launching a new course for ninth grade students.
Teaching lessons in the classroom and out in the broader world, service learning allows students to use academic knowledge and skills to fix a community problem.
"It's been my dream to have this program for the last three years," said Elizabeth Felts, the teacher and creator of the course at New Hanover High School in Wilmington. "To actually see our freshmen be so excited at 14, 15 years old about serving their community is pretty thrilling to me."
The course is titled the Bridge Program because the goal is for students to bridge the transition between middle and high school, but also for students to be a bridge from the classroom to the community.
A glance at the syllabus shows that students are in for an interdisciplinary experience with concepts from humanities, civics, English, and economics to skills like setting goals, critical thinking, and personal finance.
Felts, an English teacher, designed the curriculum in collaboration with a social studies teacher.
"Unfortunately, a lot of our young people get a bad stereotype that they're selfish, lazy, apathetic. They don't care," said Felts. "In my experience, it's quite the opposite. Students are passionate about making a change, they want to change the world, and this is just one small step for them to go forward in that passion."
This semester, 32 first-year high school students are enrolled in the Bridge Program. Throughout the semester, the class will travel as a group to sites throughout the area.
"They're in ninth grade. They might not know exactly what their passions or skills are, so we'll be going to lots of different volunteer experiences every single month," said Felts.
Past success helping students find out who they want to be
Felts isn't new to service-learning classes for high school students.
In 2014, she launched an honors course for 11th and 12th grade students after the principal mentioned his interest in creating a community service-oriented class.
"I immediately jumped at the chance," said Felts. "It's always been a passion of mine. I've worked with students volunteering in the community in the past. It's what I focused a lot of my master's work on, was service learning."
The Honors Service Learning Course has students in classroom-based discussions two days a week, and working at their individual service sites three days a week.
Forty community sites have been part of the program to date, including A Safe Place, American Cancer Society, Nourish NC, Cucalorus, YMCA and YWCA, and Full Belly Project.
"Our students are actually seeing pretty serious issues in our community like poverty, violence, lack of resources, lack of education, illiteracy, different things that they're directly involved in," said Felts.
About 400 students have completed the course since its creation. Students must apply for the program, and factors for acceptance include grade point average, attendance record, and teacher recommendations.
Several students choose to take the class more than once. Two students, Kyle Smith and Sarah Tetterton, both chose to take the class twice.
"I've definitely become more comfortable talking about myself, realizing skills that I have, but also skills that I need to work on," said Smith, whose service learning project was with the Miracle League.
"I play baseball, so I wanted to be able to help through baseball, and that's what we do at the Miracle League," said Smith. "It was all ages with special needs, any type. Basically we were there to help them run around the bases, play the game, and have fun, and there's nothing more I love than doing that."
Tetterton chose the YMCA for her service learning site.
"I was like a mentor for some of the kids. I was assisting with the counselors that actually work there," said Tetterton. "Helping teach them problems that they had on their homework, just making sure they all had a fun time after school."
Tetterton encourages other high school students to take the course.
"I definitely would recommend it for other schools," said Tetterton. "It's really a class where you're not bogged down with any homework or math or science. It's not a class like that. You're learning basic life skills that a lot of people don't have the opportunity to learn."
"We want students to find something that they're passionate about, and maybe turn that into a future career field, or something they may want to study when they go into college," said Felts.
Later in the semester, the students work together to identify a community need based upon surveys, interviews, and other data.
"Last year, they saw that the Hemingway Center needed a lot of support, so they put on a talent show to raise money for it," Felts said. "They were able to raise $2,000 for them as well as put on a Christmas party for all the students in their after-school program and give them gifts."
Another class identified the need for raising awareness about dating violence and domestic violence in our schools. Those students created an awareness campaign and raised $500 for a local organization.
Felts admits she is sort of a case study for why service learning is important for high school students.
"I would have really benefited from this class because when I was in high school, I had so many different paths that I really didn't know where I wanted to go," she said.
While her college major was psychology with her sights set on counseling, Felts decided to pursue teaching instead and completed her master's degree at UNC Wilmington.
"We need to provide a place for our students to think about, who do I want to be?" Felts said. "That's an essential question that I think every adolescent faces."
Next: Introducing service learning to other public schools
When the service learning course began in 2014 at New Hanover High, it was the only course of its kind in North Carolina's public schools, Felts said.
"Because of our success, there are other schools now that are trying to implement service learning more into their curriculum," said Felts.
After the class, Felts said students have continued to volunteer at their sites, gotten job placements, earned scholarships for their efforts, and selected career paths.
"It not only affects the students directly involved, but sets a tone for the entire school that their leaders are servant leaders," said Felts.
She wants to help other teachers and high schools implement service learning.
"My students are so inspiring," said Felts. "So many of my students have overcome tremendous adversity and are incredibly resilient and still want to serve others even though they've lived lives that are more difficult than I'll ever live. When I see that hunger and passion in them, how could I not want to have that passion as well?"