NORTH ADAMS — When Anne Thidemann French became a social worker for Drury High School in 1992, "service-learning" wasn't a household phrase.
"In North Adams we had some projects that had gone on that were not as refined as they became as a teaching method. Students were doing volunteer work in some classes, or student clubs might go and do community service in the city, but teachers weren't connecting it to their curriculum," French said.
In 1993, the entity known as the federal Learn and Serve America program, recognized that community service projects could effectively be connected to curriculum, and provided incentive grants for projects to be implemented. French applied for one of the competitive grants and secured one of the first ones for Drury High School, and continues to train teachers and support projects each year.
Her work in the field over her 24-year career, earned French the 2016 Service-Learning Practitioner Leadership Award, presented to her in Minneapolis, Minn., during the April 1 National Service-Learning Conference, presented by the The National Youth Leadership Council. French said her award is very much an award for the district, which has supported and embraced service-learning across the administration, staff and students.
"She saw the needs of the community; poverty, high teen pregnancy rate, substance abuse, disengagement, etc. ... She looked for a pedagogical method that empowered students to take charge of their lives and feel the success of doing," said Drury High School Arts Team Leader Aldonna Girouard, who submitted a nomination letter for French to receive the award. "Through her commitment to Service-Learning, the students of North Adams have not only developed an awareness of themselves and the world they live in, they have been empowered to use their skills and abilities to affect their world in a positive way."
French, who now holds the district-wide title of Service-Learning coordinator, says service-learning education engages students "in applying their curriculum to real problems," and said it tends to "grab their attention and grab their emotions."
She's also tracked data indicating that students who are involved in these projects also start doing better in school and are less likely to get in trouble, because students become naturally invested in trying to solve a community problem or filling a need.
One of the first service-learning projects still runs today — the annual Senior Prom for older adults in the community. The event is organized by Drury's sociology classes, which learns about the need for sustained social interactions as people age.
While test preparations have prompted some teachers to scale back implementing service-learning projects, several classes are still making the time for them, French said. Projects this year range from elementary school students creating a lending library for Appalachian Trail hikers who go by the school, to opening an in-school free food pantry and clothing closet to help Drury students who can't afford to fill basic living needs.