East Cleveland service-learning experience offers lessons, say CWRU researchers
The higher education concept of learning through service has resulted in direct benefit to East Cleveland, a high-poverty urban suburb struggling with problems common to aging inner-ring suburbs long abandoned by the middle class escaping the city. Working with community partners, social work students conducted action research that helped the City receive federal stimulus funds for vacant housing demolition and rehab.
Now, the Case Western Reserve University effort has expanded service learning from its origins in social work classrooms to a university-wide partnership with the East Cleveland community.
East Cleveland is Case Western Reserve’s eastern neighbor with a population of about 25,000. Mark Chupp, on the faculty at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, initiated a long-term partnership with East Cleveland that built upon multiple service learning projects and pro bono technical assistance provided by the Mandel School to the City.
These experiences in East Cleveland have led Chupp and another Case Western Reserve social work faculty member, Mark Joseph, to closely examine service learning - its limitations, challenges, implications and lessons. They write about lessons learned from the experience in the recent article “Getting the Most Out of Service Learning: Maximizing Student, University, and Community Impact” in the Journal of Community Practice.
Such real world experiences are crucial to higher education, they report. Service learning is increasingly used at campuses nationally, as academics are trying to turn passive learners into active learners and leverage the resources of universities to promote meaningful change in surrounding communities. Students benefit from applying their classroom learning in the real world, providing a service that is grounded in the course curriculum, Joseph said.
But in order to prevent students’ stereotypes and prejudices of low-income populations from being reinforced, personal connections with community residents is essential, as is “deep reflection” before, during and after the experiences.
The social work school began its work with East Cleveland in 2007 with teams of students assessing neighborhoods to learn more about the community and housing, safety and other issues.
In addition to enhancing learning, Chupp said that the goal was to provide something of value to the community. Students assessed neighborhood assets and needs and as a result of interviews with community leaders and research on national best practices, offered potential projects for the community to consider.
By the third year, a partnership formed with community organizations, such as the East Cleveland Public Library and Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope. Working with these partners and the city’s mayor, students were then paired with firefighters and community residents to survey all vacant housing in a city hit hard by foreclosures and abandonment.
The housing survey helped newly-elected East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton, with the assistance of Chupp and the social work school’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, secure over $2 million from a federal stimulus program to deal with blight. The grant was the first of three grants to East Cleveland from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
According to Chupp and Joseph, the promise of service learning is threefold; impacting not only students and the community but also creating the potential to transform higher education institutions into agents of social transformation.
The impact on CWRU can be seen in the broadening institutional commitment to East Cleveland, with the University’s Social Justice Institute focusing its debut collaborative research project on gathering community perspectives and generating dialogue and ideas about the future of the community and its relationship to the university and University Circle, and the Office of the Provost considering other means of supporting the revitalization in East Cleveland.
“Maximizing the impact on the local community requires engagement of community members, not merely as recipients of the service, but as partners in the design, implementation and assessment of the activity,” the researchers note in their article.