Grandview Heights students are finding ways to make a difference in their community through service-learning projects conducted throughout the district at all grade levels.

But the students are doing more than helping their community and impacting their world -- they also are the beneficiaries.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION #servicelearning Tweets!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+"://";fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document,"script","twitter-wjs");

"Service learning and project-based learning have been initiatives we've embraced as an important part of our students' learning and growth," said Jamie Lusher, chief academic officer of the Grandview Heights City School District.

Participating in these projects "make students feel fulfilled, driven and engaged," Lusher said. "The amount of learning that happens is incredible. It helps promote the 21st-century learning attributes of collaboration, creativity and problem-solving."

Service learning gives students a sense of empowerment and purpose, said Ellen Erlanger, co-director of Partnerships Make a Difference, a nonprofit organization headquartered in the Grandview area that promotes and encourages service learning and project-based learning in schools in central Ohio and elsewhere.

Second-graders at Stevenson Elementary School recently participated in a service-learning project in which they coordinated a schoolwide drive to collect dental-hygiene items to be distributed by the NNEMAP food pantry to its clients.

"An important theme in second grade is understanding what makes up a community and how we all impact the communities in which we belong," said second-grade teacher Barb McCauley.

Second-graders have connected with the Grandview Center this year to find ways to make a positive impact on their community, she said.

"During our visit in the fall, one of the senior volunteers shared that she collects dental supplies for the food pantry," McCauley said.

"After our visit, we came back to school and held a brainstorming session with our students," she said. "They suggested that we help collect supplies at (Stevenson). What started as an idea quickly turned into a project."

McCauley said she and other teachers want students to "own" the projects and understand the importance of teamwork in various settings -- ideas that lead to "authentic learning."

"We also want our students to reflect on their experience and how it can impact our community in a positive way," she said.

Students all in

Students help plan the service-learning projects conducted in Grandview schools, Lusher said, providing a more authentic and meaningful learning experience.

"They have a buy-in to the project," she said. "It's not just the teacher giving them an assignment they need to do."

Projects have included a collaboration between high school and middle school students to cultivate tower gardens at their schools; maintenance of a plot at the Wallace Community Gardens to grow produce to be served in school cafeterias and donated to the Heart to Heart Food Pantry; and middle schoolers' No Waste Friday initiative, in which students donate rather than throw away the produce and prepackaged items they don't eat at lunch.

Students in Katherine Kelsey's advanced art class have been working with Eat Purr Love Cat Cafe in Clintonville, which works to find homes for cats from Columbus Humane.

"The cafe has a small art gallery where they feature the work of local artists, the sales of which go towards rescue agencies," Kelsey said.

"My students took a trip to the cafe, had a meet-and-greet with the cats that are up for adoption, took pictures of them and are now working on making block prints of cats to both display and sell at the cafe's gallery," she said.

All proceeds will be donated to rescue agencies and given to families who adopt the featured cats, she said.

Excited to serve

For the second grade's dental-supplies project, students developed a list of the tasks that had to be completed, McCauley said.

"They decided there needed to be posters created to promote the project, announcements that needed writing, someone needed to visit other classes to talk about the project and make the collection containers for each grade level," she said. "Everyone got to choose a task or responsibility that fit something they wanted to do."

The drive was conducted from Feb. 26 to March 9. Stevenson students were asked to bring in donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash and dental floss.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project," McCauley said. "When you give students, especially at this grade level, something to do that they have a stake in, they get really excited about it.

"I think we were all surprised at how much of a response we got at our school," she said.

Stevenson students donated more than 500 items, including 292 toothbrushes, 179 tubes of toothpaste, 13 bottles of mouthwash and 68 packages of floss.

Massimo Greco, 7, said he's been inspired by participating in the project.

"It makes me feel like I want to do more to try to spread kindness and help around the world," he said. "I'm thinking of ways that I could do more to help people."

The project "makes you think about that there are other people who aren't as fortunate as you," said Aaliyah Acvedo-Monjaraz, 8. "It feels good to make a difference."

Dylan Scono, 8, said the project has made her more aware of being nice and helpful to others.

"It was a fun project. When we heard about the food-pantry project collecting dental supplies, we thought that would be a good project to do," she said. "We all brainstormed and figured out what we had to do for the project."

NNEMAP, which received the supplies, is a cooperative ministry of more than 30 churches that distributes food and household items to residents of the Near North Side of Columbus, said Assistant Director Sean Becker.

"We try to provide our families with items that they would normally use in (the) bathroom as often as we can, but it's not always possible given our resources," Becker said. "For the products we can't get, we do reach out to our network of churches and other organizations that support our program.

"It's incredibly easy for us to get food, much of which we get from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, but we do rely on our community partners to fill in the gaps," he said.

The pantry serves families living at or below 200 percent of the federally designated poverty level, Becker said.

It is always gratifying and encouraging to work with schools, Becker said.

"One of the things you notice is the engagement of the younger generations," he said. "There's a social conscience that's instinctive with our younger generations I think sometimes goes away as people get older."

How can we help?

Grandview Recreation Supervisor Marta Durban said the students' commitment to serving their community is impressive.

"When they came to visit us (at the Grandview Center), the students were really interested to sit down and talk with us and find out what they could do to help us," she said. "It's great to see that kind of community spirit starting so young."

The students created the decorations for the annual holiday luncheon held at the center, Durban said.

Later this spring, second-graders will continue their partnership with the center, McCauley said.

"Another focus we have in second grade is comparing how life has changed over time," she said. "Our students will be interviewing members of the senior group at the center, asking them what school, their community and life in general (were like) when they were their age and what changes they've seen take place over the years."

Teachers incorporate aspects of their regular curriculum into service-learning projects, Lusher said.

In the dental-supplies project, after counting the number of items donated, students created a map showing the number of donations by item for each grade, McCauley said.

"Grandview schools are a great place to be because we are encouraged to pursue service-learning opportunities for our students," she said.

"When students have a say in the projects they are working on for class, it's more fun and rewarding for them," she said, "and it's more fun and engaging for the teachers to work with their students on developing a project rather than just handing out an assignment for them to complete."

'Engaged learners'

Erlanger of Partnerships Make a Difference said the organization's Growing Together Service-Learning Network assists teachers and schools at all grade levels and in urban, suburban and rural areas.

Each fall, the organization holds a summit for educators that serves as a springboard for the year and a chance to gather ideas for projects, she said

In May, the Change Makers summit will allow teachers and their students to display the projects they have worked on this school year and show the impact the projects have had on their school and community.

Change Makers is a great way to celebrate the power of service learning, Erlanger said.

"The research that has been done shows conclusively that service learning is effective as a tool for school improvement, student achievement and empowerment, and positive community impact," she said.

The engagement students get from such projects translates to the classroom, Erlanger said.

"They become more-engaged learners," she said.

Community organizations that serve as partners in service-learning programs benefit in two ways, Erlanger said.

First, they receive the donations from the school projects, she said.

But just as important, "these projects are creating a generation of students who are being introduced at a young age to the concept of helping out in one's community.

"That's going to translate to their being more willing to volunteer to help local community organizations as they go through life."