Teachers, Community Groups Partner to Enhance Lessons

Kelsey Sheehy

Three days a week, a group of students from Conservatory Prep Senior High School volunteer at Peaceful Ridge Rescue, a nonprofit horse rescue in southern Florida.

The teens clean stalls, groom horses and plan fundraisers. They are also getting a lesson in economics.

Students learn how the recession led to job losses for many in their area, and why that spurred an influx in abandoned or neglected horses. They also keep track of the costs to care for a horse, including boarding, food and vet bills.

Conservatory Prep is one of many high schools working with community organizations to enhance the learning experience. Getting students outside of the classroom makes classroom concepts sink in, says Wendy Hirsch Weiner, the school's principal.

"I think if they were just learning economics out of a textbook, I don't think it means that much. It's just words on a paper," says Weiner. "Now they feel a great sense of responsibility and ownership. Now they feel like they're getting the tools to really turn this rescue ranch around so that they can afford to keep these horses."

[Learn how public-private ties can prevent dropouts.]

Peaceful Ridge Rescue is just one community organization with which Conservatory Prep collaborates. The school just launched a partnership with an area foster home. Students will raise money to remodel the home, but the lessons will go deeper than painting techniques.

"They're also learning about what kind of situations these kids come from. Going back to society and understanding a little bit more about psychology and impact on the economy," Weiner says. "We have our kids do a lot more in-depth research at school to just get a much bigger picture."

Conservatory Prep is not the only high school leveraging community partnerships.

Governor Mifflin Senior High School in Pennsylvania, for example, teams up with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter for its military history course and has area business leaders conduct mock interviews with students in the their consumer education class. At Colonie Central High School in Albany, N.Y., instructors work with the USS Slater museum to teach technology students how to fabricate ship parts.

Tobey Green-Mayfield, a chemistry instructor at Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville, takes her students to Aegis Sciences Corporation, a forensic sciences company in the city.

"It enhances the classroom greatly," she said in an email. "As a teacher, I'm able to take a student's strength and create an opportunity of further growth because I have captured that student's attention."

[Learn what makes STEM high schools tick.]

Not all community partnerships are fruitful, though, so educators should do their homework before launching a project.

"We look at what the kids will be doing," says Weiner from Conservatory Prep. "We know there are going to be times they'll just be making copies or sending out mailing - that's par for the course - but there has to be a learning component."

Conservatory Prep also looks for long-term projects that students can see through from start to finish and have an accomplishment at the end, she says.

"If it's the rescue horses, we take in a new rescue horse and the kids work with that horse until it's big and happy and fat and going onto its next home."