Community-Based Learning: Connecting Students With Their World
The Community-Based Learning (CBL) program is a key practice through which MHS engages student interest and curiosity as part of their educational experience. Though the program is voluntary, over 75 percent of 2014's graduating class participated in CBL.
The heart of the program is the internship experience. Students work with local organizations, businesses, and individuals to craft an internship that allows them to explore their interests, learn skills, and work collaboratively with the organization.
How It's Done
Initial Inquiry + Site Visit
The community-based learning program is open to every student. Students who are interested in an internship experience speak with one of three coordinators. Together, they identify the student's interest and purpose, and discuss the possibilities in the Montpelier community. Sometimes the coordinator will suggest a community partner who has already worked with the school. At other times a new connection will be made with a new community partner.
This initial discussion with the coordinator is important in helping to identify student interest, craft the right experience for the right mentor, and assemble the pieces of the internship.
Students then write a letter of interest (a cover letter) to the prospective community partner. The school provides some templates for this, since most students are new to the world of work. In the cover letter, students will introduce themselves and express why they are interested in that particular site, what skills they bring, and want they'd like to learn. The student begins to develop his or her own relationship with the community partner, developing a set of goals and expectations for what the internship will look like. A coordinator is there to oversee the process.
If the organization in question is interested, a site visit is set up for the student. The coordinator will accompany the student on the initial visit, which explores what the site possibilities are, as well as determining if it is the right fit for the student and the mentor organization.
The amount of time that a student dedicates to an internship experience will vary. Some students want to just dip their toes into seeing whether a particular field is of interest to them, so they'll spend about an hour of their week at a site. Other students want a more immersive experience, and may dedicate two days a week for two or three hours a day to the experience. Students can ultimately design their schedules around what kind of experience they want.
Community partners can be developed with any organization, business, or individual (such as an artist, photographer, or journalist who works as a freelancer or owns a small business.) It's crucial for the coordinators to help the partner understand the expectations of what a student internship involves -- giving the student a defined experience that is meaningful and allows him or her to learn and contribute to that organization. Students should not just be used for menial tasks, but are there to learn and contribute in a meaningful way. The coordinator is there to help the student and organization define what can be possible at the site, and take into account everyone's time and expertise.
Some of the MHS community partners have included the State of Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, a local sawmill, the Vermont legislature, a local newspaper, an architecture firm, and a radio station. The possibilities are endless, but the relationship between the school and the community partner is essential.
Learning Expectations: Connecting Student Experiences to Their Learning
MHS has centered its teaching and learning around a set of learning expectations (LEs) that transcend every class and experience the students have at the school. These LEs fall within seven areas (all with sub-sections) that are the heart of the skills students develop in school:
- Habits of learning
- Problem solving
For the CBL program, students will identify one or two LEs and develop a plan as to how their internship will connect to them. The coordinator also helps the students and the community partners identify those connections between the internship and the school community's values. For example, a student working at a local newspaper may be developing the LEs of writing and creativity. In that student's Statement of Purpose, which describes the internship and the work intended, he or she would also write how the LEs will be addressed. The LEs provide a clear connection between what the student is doing at the internship site and what the school does.
Each semester, about 50-65 students are engaged in internships throughout the Montpelier community. Students in the CBL program are required to take the CBL Seminar, which meets once a month. The seminar is designed to provide a support network for students and have them reflect on their experiences. It meets monthly, and consists of 8-12 students per class. During the seminar, students take part in activities that help them think about their work and reflect on the internship experience, its challenges, and its strengths. The second part of the seminar is more practical, as students work on their resume, write thank you letters, learn how to do an interview correctly, or even research college programs that might be of interest to them based on their internship experience.
Assessment, Evaluation, and End Products
The CBL course is pass/fail. Each student and his or her community partner develop a set of goals for the internship, which sometimes includes an end product that the student is responsible for on-site. For example, an architecture firm may want a student to complete a design for a particular space, or a newspaper may want a student to write a feature-length article. However, not all internships come with concrete end products. Often, a student's end product is awareness and knowledge about that particular field or organization, and that information can be used in future decisions about college or career plans.
Students are also expected to write a reflective paper at the end of the semester, which consists of what they observed and what they took part in. This paper also includes how the student thought that he or she connected to the learning his or her expectations at the beginning, and in what ways those were fulfilled.
Each site mentor also fills out an evaluation form for the student, which lists a number of skills -- persistence, responsibility, attention to detail -- and asks the mentor to rate the student in these areas. These evaluations align nicely with the LEs, and students begin to understand what skills and responsibilities are valued in the workplace. Mentors also write a narrative summary of the student's work and experience at the site.