WINDOW ROCK-Does service learning support and boost academic achievement? This is a question that educators and administrators seek to answer. Those teachers who participate in service learning know that it does, but finding solid evidence to document that fact is sometimes difficult.
The leadership students at STAR School made significant progress in showing that service learning and academic achievement go hand in hand.
On March 2, ten STAR students entered seven divisions of the Navajo Nation Science Fair in Window Rock and placed in six of the seven. Kee Wilson took first place in the Botany division while Afton Solomon placed first in Computer Science, Kyle Begay took first place in Earth Science, Crystal Drake took third in Social and Behavioral Sciences, Brandon Montour took second in Physics, and Kennedy Slowtalker took second in Engineering.
Wilson said that he didn't expect to place in the science fair, so taking first place was a real surprise. His project measured the drought resistance in traditional indigenous seeds as compared to commercial seeds found in popular seed catalogues.
"I proved that Native seeds are more drought resistant. This is important...because a lot of us couldn't afford commercial seeds, and finding out that the seeds we grow ourselves free of charge are actually better is a really good thing," Wilson said.
Wilson added that not only are the traditional seeds drought-resistant-like his great-grandmother's blue flour corn seeds-they are also actually better for a person's nutritional health.
"Sweet corn has a lot of sugar in it as compared to heirloom blue flour corn. Eating our traditional corn helps prevent diabetes," Wilson explained. "Gardening also gives you the opportunity to exercise, which also prevents diabetes."
Solomon took first place in the science fair for her project on earthquakes.
"I wanted to see how a seismograph works." she said. "I would like to see a seismograph established at the Grand Falls crossing overlook. I think it would help those of us who live on or near the reservation because we could be prepared for an earthquake."
She added, "I was surprised that I took first place in the Computer Science division of the Navajo Nation Science Fair because there were at least six other people in my category that I thought were better than mine. When I heard my name, I felt happy because I felt like all the effort I took on my science project brought me to a conclusion of success."
Montour's science fair project involved Native American flutes and how to find the pitch. He took second place in the Physics division. Burrell Jones' project involved solar energy, and was entered in the Engineering Division.
The following Monday, March 5, the Learn and Serve project directors received a phone call from the Governor's Office; they learned that their leadership students had won the Governor's Award for Volunteerism in the youth division for their Elder Help Project. Interestingly, of the eight students, four had placed in the science fair. A fifth serves as a leadership co-pilot. The students who will be accepting the Governor's Award are: Paris Dixon, Crystal Drake, Burrell Jones, Brandon Montour, Afton Solomon, Kee Wilson and Keshia Yazzie.
"I am excited that we won the Governor's Award," Wilson admitted. "That was another surprise. I like service learning because we get to go out and help our community. I feel that this improves my attitude towards school." Wilson's project involves making a film about the traditional relationship between animals and the Navajo people. He was inspired to develop the project when he learned that many non-Navajos believe that the Navajo are abusive to animals.
Solomon's project involves assisting elders at a local nursing home and in far-flung sheep camps across the Leupp, Grand Falls and Canyon Diablo areas. She said she was surprised to learn that the Elder Care Project had been recognized with the Governor's Award for Volunteerism.
"I thought we weren't being recognized for our work, but now I know we are," Solomon said. "I'm excited to meet the governor because I want to tell her what we have accomplished over the school year. My favorite part of being involved in service learning is because I get to see elders who are in need of help and meet other people that I haven't met in the community.
"I think that doing service learning helps me a lot because I know that I'm doing something at my school instead of just sitting in class at time, and thinking of other people instead of myself," Solomon said.
Montour and Jones co-lead a project designed to repair homes for the elderly. They will also be building a handicapped ramp on another elder's home.
Jones is one of the few students not surprised to learn about winning the Governor's Award. He agreed that service learning improved his attitude at school.
Montour wasn't even aware that their team had been nominated.
"I chose the repair project because I think about my grandma, and that she needs help," Montour said.
The pair will be joining the Prescott Valley Charter School on March 28 to undertake at least two homes in the area.
Jones said he is excited about going to Phoenix to meet the governor.
"I guess it is nice to meet the governor," Montour echoed.
Crystal Drake has led the Firewood Hauling. "I didn't really want to go to the science fair because I don't really like science," Drake admitted. "I still don't like it. I didn't think that I would win at the science fair because I wasn't sure how my project would help the community."
Even so, her project on how traditional herbs affected an individual's well-being took a third place award in the Social and Behavioral Sciences division.
Drake has a more positive attitude about service learning.
"I don't think my project helps me with math or stuff like that, but going out to help elders makes me want to come to school on those days," she said. "I like that we get to help the elders and get out in the community. I feel like our work is really appreciated. The elders really like it when we take wood and water out to them."
"I think it's pretty cool winning the Governor's Award," Drake admitted. Although she dislikes facing the camera, it's something she will have to get used to in the next few weeks. Why?
A film crew will be visiting the school on March 28 to document the students in their work at STAR School.
Kennedy Slowtalker is a Learn and Serve co-pilot (an older student leader who mentors service learning leadership) who placed second in the science fair's engineering division.
Keshia Yazzie is extremely supportive of community elders, and is quite vocal in her enjoyment of helping them. She heads the Water Hauling project, but is active in several other categories of the Elder Help Project. Her science project was quite unique.
"I wondered if clan relations shared the same fingerprint features," Yazzie said. She gathered fingerprints from many students and staff at STAR to gather information to prove this.
Kyle Begay, a seventh-grader, triumphantly took first place in the Earth Science division.
The STAR School-a small charter school located approximately 35 miles northeast of Flagstaff-was founded on the principle of service learning. The school opened in the fall of 2001 and has hosted Learn and Serve Arizona for five of seven years.
Tom Tomas, who teaches the combined seventh and eighth graders, is excited about science and service learning. Tomas believes that service learning is valuable to academic achievement. "I have observed that our students are very strong in scientific investigation, and applying science to the real world," he said.
Tomas added that he was especially proud of how his students identify their responsibilities to the younger students in the community, joining in teaching activities, such as reading and planting seeds.
Of their dual achievement, Tomas commented, "Our students' achievements reflect commitment on the part of family and the school community's conjoined efforts. Students were helping students with their projects, and were giving each other feedback. With any of their projects, if it were just an individual working on it alone in isolation, it wouldn't have had the collective spirit and sense of accomplishment that we've earned."