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Lending a Helping Hand

Patrick Henry’s 'Exemplary Project' seeks to highlight the importance of service learning.

Lisa Piehota, principal of Patrick Henry Elementary was looking for a way to involve her students in the community, when she had the idea for a service learning program.

"We were trying to think of what kind of program would uniquely fit the needs of Patrick Henry," explained Piehota. "We are such a beautifully diverse school, and we really wanted to add to that through service learning, and have the children become aware of the diversity within the Patrick Henry community."

Piehota sought to create a service-learning program. These programs take community service one step further within the school setting by actually tying it into lesson plans

Based on current research, service learning has been shown to have far-reaching impacts on the academic and social achievement of the student population at diverse schools.

Patrick Henry Elementary, a school with a diverse student body (about 40% of the population is Hispanic, according to Piehota), has taken a cue from such studies and created the Exemplary Project, "Henry’s Helping Hands."

The project is to be implemented for the first time in the upcoming school year. School officials envision that students will participate in a minimum of one service learning activity each semester. Teachers will decide upon a particular Arlington Public Schools Gifted Theme, such as "Cooperation" or "Environment," to tie together each grade's service learning experience.

A Service Learning Coordinator will act as a liaison among the school, students, and community to establish connections and facilitate projects.

After each activity, students take part in the reflection component, where they will be asked to give an oral presentation or write an analytical response to what they learned.

A FEW PROJECTS set to begin this year include community beautification activities in conjunction with ACE Master Gardeners. Students will also be working with senior citizens at the Walter Reed Senior Center.

Through the Gallaudet University Partnership, Patrick Henry students will work with Gallaudet students to learn sign language. Communication will take place through video mail.

Arlington County School Board Chair Mary Hynes sees real potential in what service learning can accomplish when it comes to academic achievement.

"Research says when kids feel connected to the community, they become more engaged with learning in general," Hynes said. "In a community like Arlington, it’s a good way to go to help the community become even stronger than it is."

Drawing upon a variety of learning theories, the exemplary project's objectives include fostering students' self-confidence and strengthening relationships between the school and its surrounding community, as well as between the school and the students' families.

"The program will help students with self-esteem and being aware of the strengths and talents they have within the community," said Piehota, who is going into her fifth year at Patrick Henry. "It should also provide them with role models, by establishing relationships with people they wouldn't have met otherwise. The program will help students understand what it takes to keep a community growing and beautiful."

School board member Ed Fendley believes Patrick Henry’s exemplary project demonstrates that real-world experiences are just as vital to a child's education as reading from a textbook.

"Educating kids is more than about standardized tests," said Fendley. "With a community as rich and diverse as Arlington, getting to know the community beyond the walls of their school is really super."