Life Service Action: Finding the leader in every student

After-School All-Stars uses service learning as one of several strategies to build leadership skills.
After-School All-Stars uses service learning as one of several strategies to build leadership skills.

Many of the middle-school age children attending After-School All-Stars, a network of afterschool programs at more than 400 schools in 13 major cities across the country, deal with adult-size problems every day.

“They’re not oblivious to the challenges they face,” says Aaron Dworkin, executive vice president for the All-Stars National Network in Washington, D.C. “So when they learn they don’t have to accept things as they are — and when they’re given the responsibility, coaching and training they need to do something about it, they become leaders — for themselves, for their younger brothers and sisters and under certain circumstances, for their communities.”

Leadership training — as carried out through the After-School All-Stars’ (ASAS) Life Service Action program — is more of an agenda than a curriculum.

“Leadership is embedded in everything we do,” said Dworkin.

Leadership, nurtured through service to community, is one of the All Star’s four national programming priorities, which also include academic and homework support, visual and performing arts activities, and health, nutrition and physical fitness instruction. Founded in 2002 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would become California’s governor the following year, ASAS currently serves 92,000 low-income, at-risk youth. Since 2004, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided more than $1.2 million in grant support to ASAS.

The hours after the school day are an ideal space for training leaders, says Dworkin.

“The regular school day is just too busy to give students the time to put leadership into practice. Afterschool provides the flexibility and creative time that they need to figure out what is important to them, what they want to change and how they will design a project and recruit help to make it happen.”

After-School All-Stars’ Youth Advisory Board poses in front of the United States Capitol.
After-School All-Stars’ Youth Advisory Board, made up of eighth-grade students from each of its sites, serves as a sounding board for the program.

Dworkin, who prior to joining ASAS founded Hoops & Leaders, a sports-based mentoring and training program for low-income student athletes in New York City, says the experience taught him that kids crave relevance. They want to connect what they learn in school and after school — with their everyday lives.

“Getting the chance to apply what they learned, to see what leadership skills look like in real-life situations — to practice those skills through a project that is really exciting to them — well, you can see the light bulbs going on,” he said.

What’s more, leadership and service learning experiences are great vehicles for reinforcing the value of core academic subjects, Dworkin continued.

“There’s nothing like giving students the responsibility of putting together a proposal or budget for their service project to help them understand the importance of math and spelling. They really begin to see what it takes to get someone to listen to them and their ideas.”

By working to change something that directly affects them, students gain a genuine understanding of and appreciation for leadership and community service.

“Leadership becomes a tangible part of their lives,” he said.

To that end, ASAS encourages all of its sites to incorporate one service-learning project into each of their 6-10 week enrichment classes, enabling students to use their new skills and support their community.

“After-School All-Stars school sites typically have a student leadership group called Entourage, which takes responsibility for the planning and leading of service and service-learning projects at their school,” notes Joe Hong, program director for ASAS in San Diego. In that city, students operate a number of service-learning projects year-round, making monthly visits to long-term care facilities to visit with isolated senior citizens suffering from Alzheimer’s and other progressive diseases; collaborating with two local community gardens to provide fresh produce to local families; and volunteering to clear and restore a local nesting site for endangered terns with the local Audubon Society.

“We want our kids to understand that you don’t have to be an outstanding athlete or math whiz to make a difference,” Dworkin said, noting that something as simple as an afterschool cooking class presents the opportunity to learn more about hunger in the larger community.

“Incorporating leadership requires a change in the paradigm — a change in how we look at afterschool activities and the opportunities they offer in terms of empowerment and service,” he said. “We look at every activity as a potential window for introducing leadership and those values that go along with it.”

In 2010, ASAS launched a Youth Advisory Board, made up of eighth-grade students from each of its sites. Advisory board representatives — selected based on their leadership abilities, strong attendance, academic performance, and commitment to serving their peers — serve as a terrific sounding board for the program, says Dworkin.

“They give us honest feedback — and we use that information to help improve program design,” he continued.

“We want leadership to continue to be part of our organizational DNA,” Dworkin said. “We aren’t just committed to training the leaders of tomorrow — we’re committed to training leaders for today.”