“Service learning is the heart of what Ensworth is,” says the new High School Director of Service Learning Betsy Thomas. We sat down to discuss her background, where she came from, and what she is most excited to develop and establish on the Frist Campus and beyond.
Betsy is an eleven-year veteran of secondary education, holding positions in teaching, counseling, service learning, and high school administration. In her time before Ensworth, her deep passion for service learning emerged and led her to take a deep dive into professional development through conferences, workshops, and training programs. Her journey even brought her to Ensworth years ago to learn more about the incorporation of service learning into a school-wide curriculum. Her deep love and excitement propelled Ms. Thomas as she designed and implemented the Service Learning Program at Lipscomb Academy, in addition to her other duties at the school. “[Service learning is] one of the things I love most about education,” she reflects.
The integration of classroom education and service learning opportunities is not new to Ensworth, and that captivated Betsy. “Service learning is such an important part of this school. It’s in the Mission Statement; it’s in the Vision Statement. It’s such a focus here - from the bottom up. The buy-in is already here.” This drew Ms. Thomas to Ensworth. For her, service learning has always been more than just community service and working with nonprofits - things that often happen outside the confines of the academic environment at schools. Ms. Thomas believes service and learning should not be parted by classroom walls.
“The thing that intrigued me about this job was getting to do service learning and ONLY service learning.” Being here allows her to focus on the overall program and plans exclusively. The priority is evident. “One of my goals is to try to reestablish the idea that service learning is taking learning that is happening in the classroom and applying that in the community. [The Service Learning Curriculum] enhances the learning experience - the overall Ensworth experience.” This, alongside the desire to link students’ gifts and talents with needs in the community, feeds directly into the other programmatic curriculum in the High School.
There is more to this than just joining students to service and learning in their community. After each Service Learning Day, students look back to the event and reflect on their experiences. They engage in conversations about the Community Partner they worked with as well as their own involvement in the day. “We want to make sure students are reflective, not just reflecting. What does it mean for you? What does it mean for the community?” The learning continues past the hours they dedicate to the service of others.
The High School hosted its first Service Learning Day on October 12, 2021, and has three more planned for the school year. Grade 9 students worked with Rise Against Hunger as they packed 24,624 meals. Grade 10 students assembled 400 boxes that were sent to schools all over Tennessee for Homework Hotline. These projects lead to conversations about hunger around the world and inequality in education. Grade 11 students engaged in Purpose Work and how to make service learning personal to them as they discussed questions such as, “What is Service Learning?” Many Grade 12 students have started their personal projects, as well, engaging in 20 service hours throughout the school year with a nonprofit of their choice.
A lot of planning and preparation goes into these efforts. Faculty meetings and PCL time are used to prep both teachers and students. It is more than just four days a year; it is a part of who Ensworth is and the overall Ensworth experience. Service learning also extends beyond the High School, for service has always been ingrained in the foundation of the Lower and Middle School programs, as well. At each grade level, students work with nonprofits to foster a spirit of service, encouraging students to become lifelong contributors. As Besty stated, “We are trying to connect, specifically, the Middle School to the High School. Maurice Hopkins and I have been talking a lot because we want to prepare the transition so that, as students come from eighth grade into high school, they have some understanding of how service learning works beyond Middle School.” This organic matriculation of ideas is taking Betsy to the Middle School Service Fair in November to share with the eighth graders more about what happens in the High School Service Learning program.