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Beyond the classroom walls: Service learning at New Hanover High

Elizabeth Felts is passionate about service learning. In 2014, when the principal of New Hanover High School raised an interest in starting a service-focused course, she jumped at the chance. Through the Honors Service Learning program she helped create, juniors and seniors earn course credit while identifying and serving needs within their community. Felts said she can’t even begin to know all of the benefits students in the program experience, but what she hears most often is that they see more value in themselves.

“Some of our students, particularly our freshmen, but even some of our juniors and seniors — they’ve never volunteered anywhere, they’ve never had a job. So they don’t know what value they bring to the table. And if your only other measures of success are maybe what you got on your report card, a test score, or maybe what you do in an extracurricular, that’s a very limited scope of yourself,” said Felts. “So to say ‘No, you have value, and you can actually make a difference and help people’ completely changes their world view of not only themselves, but also their community.”

Last year, Felts worked with fellow teacher Whitney Coonradt to expand service learning opportunities at New Hanover High to include ninth grade students. The new Bridge program combines academic support with interdisciplinary learning. Community service field trips are closely linked to topics that are being covered in Felts’ and Coonradt’s English and social studies classes.

For Coonradt, community engagement is an easy fit with her social studies curriculum.

“We need engaged citizenry, we need the community engaged in schools, we need the schools engaged in the community for this thing to work. I think there can be a real divide between young people and the community [in] both directions. And I think something like service learning where students are prepped before they go, have a defined purpose, and come back and reflect on it, can build that relationship,” said Coonradt. “[It] can bring a trust and a deeper understanding of what the community means to them, and then for the community to see what young people are really about.”

Felts is excited to see the effects of the programs she helped start spreading throughout her community. The Honors Service Learning program has inspired two other local high schools to integrate more service learning into their classrooms.

“It’s just amazing to watch one idea, one kind of big risk that I took, have such a ripple effect,” said Felts.

Michelle Lotker

Michelle Lotker is an award-winning documentary storyteller with a passion for listening to people’s stories, learning new things and discovering the unexpected. Her background combines a stint as an environmental scientist with a Master’s degree in journalism to make her uniquely qualified to tell complex stories in accessible, engaging ways. Lotker’s work has been screened at film festivals including the International Wildlife Film Festival. She’s worked with organizations ranging from UNC-TV to the Sierra Club to local community health centers and national architecture firms to tell stories through a variety of audio and visual formats.