Sixteen-year-old Shalla Kujawa is a smallish girl who wears long flowered skirts and carries a canvas backpack scrawled with her own ink drawings. It's hard to picture her wearing waders and building a fish lunker. Yet that's how she spent a week last May, as a member of Madison's Shabazz City High School's "Project Green Teen."
"I'd never dreamed I could do that kind of work," Kujawa says. "But it's given me the confidence to apply for a summer job in Wyoming with the Youth Conservation Corps, building trails and bridges and stuff."
Project Green Teen is a semester-long program focusing on cold-water stream ecology, leadership and healthy life choices. It's one of more than a dozen service-learning initiatives in place at Shabazz, a nationally recognized "leader school" in the movement to engage kids by tying learning to the real world.
The country has a long tradition of civic partnership and volunteerism, but service learning took off in 1990, when the National and Community Service Act created Serve America to "simultaneously enrich the education of young people, demonstrate the value of youth as assets to their communities and stimulate service-learning as a strategy to meet community needs." Learn and Serve America - an umbrella organization made up of Serve America, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps - is the largest source of funding for service learning projects in the U.S. President Obama supports service learning - he wants middle- and high-schoolers to complete 50 hours of community service a year.
Along with building "lunkers" (fish habitats), PGT kids and teachers help clear flood debris, create "sweepers" (positioning downed trees so the stream narrows and deepens), and test water quality in places like Black Earth Creek and Token Creek. They also learn the sport of fly-fishing (not just how to cast, but the sport's history and importance in the state). And that's just the "stream ecology" part. Other PGT projects include a trash pickup at Warner Park and cooking Farmers' Market breakfasts at the Senior Center with L'Etoile chef Tory Miller and other local chefs.
Weeks of study and research deepen the context of these real-world interactions.
Technology teacher Tina Murray is the leader of Project Green Teen, launched four years ago with the help of eight other participating teachers (plus more who are peripherally involved). Murray pulls in a diverse group of helpers, including DNR staff, members of Trout Unlimited, organic farmers and many others, to provide funding, teaching, food, gear and transportation for the community-based service projects (two of which involve overnight trips) and hands-on learning opportunities.
"It's like putting together a big puzzle," she says. "None of us are trained fundraisers, so it is kind of a crapshoot."
A few other Madison schools encourage service learning. Edgewood High School requires 100 hours of community service before students can graduate (students must fill out forms describing the date, number of hours and type of service they performed, and submit them for approval). Wingra School has embraced several service-learning projects based in Third World countries.
Only Shabazz High School, though, is recognized as "a national demonstration site" by Learn and Serve America. The recognition means Shabazz is "working to build a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility in America." Shabazz teachers and students are regularly asked to present at the National Youth Leadership Council's annual service learning conference.
The effort isn't easy - which may be why more schools don't try it. Teachers must operate in a wide variety of settings and call on skills they might never need in a classroom (such as wielding saws and axes or keeping track of 20 teenagers in a creek).
"We've seen some teachers cry," admits Kujawa. "But that's one of the beautiful things about it. You build a closeness with them."
Murray says the program "stretches" teachers because its underpinning philosophy is to allow the kids' questions to help shape the curriculum. If working with trees fires the group's interest in forestry, the curriculum might expand to include research and real-world interaction with forestry experts. Plus, teachers must put in extra hours on field trips and in organizing transportation and substitutes for their out-of-class time. Then there's the funding: Somebody has to write the grants, and often that falls to Murray or another teacher.
And yet, Murray says, Shabazz teachers "line up" for the privilege of getting involved in Project Green Teen. The benefits of service learning are enormous, she says. Words cannot do the experience justice.
"It's hard to describe the stark difference in the students' attitudes and motivation. Many go on to college, the Peace Corps and Serve America after graduation."
This at the city's "alternative" high school, where students often end up after struggling just to get by in other academic settings.
Brad McKercher, a clean-cut senior with a mile-wide grin, emphasizes "working as a team" as the most beneficial aspect of Project Green Teen.
"You're put into this group where you don't know anybody, and all of a sudden you need to work together," he says. McKercher and another boy, Caleb Campbell, recall a PGT project with DNR Fisheries head Kurt Welke, down on Black Earth Creek.
"He didn't have too good of an opinion of us, at first," says Campbell, a junior with a lock of blue-tinged hair brushing his freckled forehead.
Welke admits he harbored a "completely wrong" stereotype of Shabazz students when Tina Murray asked if the boys could join him in trout habitat management last fall.
"I thought, okay, they're not going to want to listen or follow directions, " says Welke. "But these young men were motivated, engaged and incredibly articulate. The pleasant part was, we talked about the 'why,' not just the 'what' of the task at hand. And they worked hard - grubbing, stacking, clearing brush. Most volunteers peter out after a while. Not these kids."
Welke is enthusiastic about the possibility of more PGT projects on the creek this spring.
"These kids are going places - just under a different set of guidelines," he says. "Thank God for people like Tina, who see their potential and nurture it."
Shalla Kujawa and Brad McKercher have the same look in their eyes as they describe Project Green Teen: intense enthusiasm. The two are almost talking over one another as they lean forward to explain.
"We went out to Avalanche Organics for a week -"
"Built 22 lunkers, pulled garlic mustard -"
"We got to cook Farmers' Market breakfast with chef Tory."
"Every day we took an Art of Cooking class."
When asked which activity had the biggest impact on her, Kujawa doesn't hesitate.
"All of it," she says. "We're making connections that form a whole big picture of how the world works."