A group of tired and dirty, but clearly proud, middle school students pose atop a mountain of old tires, part of the hundreds of pounds of garbage they voluntarily pulled out of a wooded area.
This cleanup was one part of the Civic Responsibility Project at Frances DeMasi Middle School in Marlton, N.J., a school of 700 students in grades 6-8. Approximately 140 8th graders participated in one of four community service activities: cleaning up a polluted area, feeding the homeless in Philadelphia, visiting nursing home residents, and visiting patients at a children’s hospital. Nearly 30 parents from the DeMasi PTA accompanied them on these trips.
For its efforts, the DeMasi Middle School PTA has received the Outstanding Community Service Project award in PTO Today’s 2011 Parent Group of the Year search.
“It’s an enormous undertaking,” principal Irene Romanelli says of the gradewide project.
While the service project was an in-school activity led by teachers, Romanelli says the school’s PTA was essential in making it work. Managing so many students in multiple off-site locations was the biggest challenge, she says. The PTA solved that problem by spearheading communications, using email lists to coordinate volunteers and keep parents informed. In addition to acting as chaperones, parents donated garden tools for the cleanup, for example, and provided anything else the school needed for the project. “As a principal, you can’t function without a PTA,” Romanelli says.
Civic responsibility has been part of the school’s curriculum for 15 years, and in that time, students have participated in a number of smaller projects. A grant from the New Jersey Education Association allowed the school to expand the community service project last year.
After completing their service work, students gave presentations to their peers on what they had learned. The project helped students develop empathy for others who may be suffering, Romanelli says; the presentations helped make it an educational opportunity. Finally, she says, working together fostered a sense of camaraderie that has extended beyond the service project.
“The experience was to teach kids about giving back to their community and will hopefully be something they will continue through their high school years and into their adult lives,” says PTA president Linda House.
What the judges loved: Students took a hands-on role in leading the service learning project while parents stayed in the background and provided support, a good balance for middle school.
Cool fact: The New Jersey Public Television network spotlighted the Civic Responsibility Project in an episode of Classroom Close-up, NJ.