High-school course addresses community concerns - Catholic Courier

High-school course addresses community concerns

As Yvie Molingou can attest, the Service Learning curriculum at Elmira Notre Dame High School offers education extending well beyond the classroom.

Yvie spent considerable time at Elmira’s Beecher Elementary School during her junior year of 2014-15, working closely with young public-school students. It was through this service duty that she came to appreciate the struggles many of the youngsters face daily, such as poverty and broken homes.

“I remember asking kids what they wanted for Christmas, and a boy said Christmas wasn’t going to come because his father was in prison,” Yvie recalled.

Gaining insight into the plights of those less fortunate, and taking action to help them succeed, strike at the heart of the Service Learning initiative. The course was created five years ago by Jennifer Roberts-O’Brian, who also is Notre Dame’s assistant principal for academic life and director of admissions. The 2014-15 school year saw 26 students take the elective, which is open to juniors and seniors and offered in conjunction with Corning Community College.

Service Learning students assist at Beecher as well as Hendy Elementary; both schools are for grades 3-6. The high-schoolers help the younger children with homework and class work, and also participate with them in games.

This hands-on service is an outgrowth of Service Learning’s concentration on local needs and their underlying causes. Other components of the course include conversations with community members as well as reading, classroom discussions and presentations.

In addition to its focus on young students, Serving Learning has addressed such topics in the past as hunger, bullying, homelessness and imprisonment. Roberts-O’Brian pointed out that incarceration is a prevalent theme in Elmira, due to the presence of two states prisons — Elmira Correctional Facility and Southport Correctional Facility. In fact, she said, 25 percent of the city’s public-school population has a family member who is incarcerated.

Yvie has twice visited inmates at Elmira Correctional Facility as part of her course work, hearing stories from convicted murderers about their childhoods and their lives in prison. This experience, she said, is an example of how Service Learning tackles weighty subjects that other folks might just as soon avoid.

“I don’t want to hide away from what’s happening in the community, and that’s what people do. Even though it’s everywhere all around us, we tend to ignore it,” she stated.

Roberts-O’Brian is hoping to extend the class’s community focus through her training earlier this year with Life is Good Playmakers, a Boston-based initiative that stresses the power of play for children in overcoming stressful situations. Roberts-O’Brian plans to share her training experience with area professionals who work with young children, and already has done so with her Service Learning charges. For example, the high-schoolers have staged an activity called “newsball” at the elementary schools during which a ball is tossed from student to student; whoever has the ball shares a piece of news from the day. Roberts-O’Brian said this type of interaction serves as a good icebreaker.

“Building trusting relationships is key to the work we do, and play is a wonderful vehicle for breaking down barriers,” she said.

Roberts-O’Brian observed that strong ties have formed between Notre Dame and the local elementary schools. Last year the Service Learning program instituted the Maloney Family Scholarship, a six-year full scholarship for a graduating sixth-grader from Beecher to attend Notre Dame. In addition, Roberts-O’Brian said her high-schoolers have become so attached to the younger students that they regularly exceed their required level of service hours.

“My students have developed such compassion,” she said. “Certainly you have your population of students coming in thinking this (course) will be a great resume builder. Hands down, they come away with a different attitude.”

Indeed, Yvie said that the Beecher students have “become a pretty big part of my life.”

“The kids always get so excited when you show up in the morning,” she remarked, noting that the younger students love to exchange hugs.

Yvie said she has come to appreciate the positive impact she and other Notre Dame students provide with their presence at Beecher and Hendy.

“It makes me feel like I actually have the ability to make a difference,” she said, noting that she feels considerable satisfaction when students achieve academic breakthroughs through her help — “when they’re finally able to sit there and say, ‘Wow, I finally get this.'”

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