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Service Learning

One school's 5th grade curriculum uses community service activities related to cats, dogs, and zoo animals to teach kids science.

by Patty Catalano


Fifth-grade students at Walker Station Elementary in Sugar Land, Texas, are caretakers of an orangutan, a giraffe, and even an otter. But fortunately for the teachers and custodians, these animals never set foot in the classroom; they live at the nearby Houston Zoo. Students and teachers tend to them remotely through the zoo’s Adopt an Animal program. By performing chores at home, students raise and donate funds to feed and care for their animals.

It’s just one of the collaborative initiatives behind Walker Station’s multifaceted “All Creatures Big and Small” project, which teachers and PTO leaders initiated for 5th graders about two years ago. The endeavor has gotten students wild about animals and mad about science.

Within the All Creatures framework, the kids study a rigorous science curriculum, then complete 50 hours of volunteer work, also called service learning, over the school year. PTO leaders facilitate the bulk of those service learning activities for students, and parents often participate, too.

“Service learning was incorporated into the 5th grade curriculum because it was a method of teaching, learning, and reflecting that combines academic classroom curriculum with meaningful community service,” explains former Walker Station principal Chris Morgan, who moved on to a local middle school in fall 2009. The activities within the All Creatures project, he adds, “enabled the 5th grade students to understand that their involvement and commitment can make a difference in the quality of life in their community.”

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The service projects conducted also keep volunteers busy during the year. In January 2009, PTO board member and 5th grade activities coordinator Asha Vaidya helped students promote All Creatures at a schoolwide science night that drew nearly 1,000 attendees. For service hours, students baked and bagged dog biscuits; handmade bookmarks, buttons, and door hangers were sold during the event. “They also created habitat displays for the animals that they adopted from the zoo,” Vaidya says.

That May, Vaidya and the PTO also arranged a pet food and supplies drive to benefit two local groups, AniMeals on Wheels and Citizens for Animal Protection. The 5th graders and their parents collected and donated dog and cat food, blankets, and towels. Students then divided the food into 3- or 4-pound resealable plastic bags. Families loaded and delivered some 200 bags of food and supplies to the agencies, which distributed the items to needy elderly clients with pets. Recalls Vaidya, “In our community sometimes we get too busy and we just want to write a check, but this service learning project gave the kids the opportunity to participate in making a difference.”

The All Creatures program culminated on the last day of school with a ceremony in the school’s gym for the 5th graders, all 193 of whom completed their 50 service hours. They each received a President’s Volunteer Service Award certificate; the PTO arranged for those along with decorations and snacks. Vaidya credits the collaborative spirit at Walker Station as the driving force behind the success of the program: “It took many people doing their part to achieve the goals—the teachers to instruct the curriculum, the PTO to organize all the events, and students to actually do the work.”

The Group
Walker Station Elementary PTO, Sugar Land, Texas

School size: 900 students, grades K-5
Annual budget: $45,000
Fundraisers: catalog sales, dinner with live and silent auction
Philosophy: To promote the welfare and educational, vocational, and character development of children who attend Walker Station Elementary and to develop and maintain a forum for parents, teachers, and citizens within the community interested in the advancement of those purposes.

All Creatures Big and Small
Community service activities are intertwined with the school’s 5th grade science curriculum

Pet project: “This project takes very little capital to start,” notes PTO board member Asha Vaidya, “but a lot of enthusiasm from the teachers, administration of the school, parents, and most importantly the students.” The PTO allocated $300 for the service learning ceremony held on the last day of school. “The rest of the money for the project was raised by the kids—doing chores at home or by making dog biscuits and selling them at science night,” she adds.

Class menagerie: Adopting animals at the Houston Zoo was one way the program enhanced learning outside the classroom. “The 5th grade science curriculum is based on the students learning about ecosystems,” explains former Walker Station principal Chris Morgan, “so the teachers felt if the students actually felt responsible for an animal they would want to learn more about it and its ecosystem.” Each week, 5th graders also visited with kindergartners and 1st grade students to share their knowledge about animal habitats and read animal-related books together.

Helping the paws cause: All Creatures helped parents get more involved at Walker Station, as well. “Since some of the 50-plus hours for the service award needed to be done at home, this gave working parents the opportunity to participate in this program,” Morgan says. Parents helped out by finding and donating rugs, blankets, and towels and repackaging bags of pet food for the elderly alongside their kids, and they monitored and signed students’ volunteer service cards.

Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.

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