Abstract

The purpose of this case study was to examine how students with severe disabilities participated in service-learning at a food pantry and the curricular goals they addressed. Service-learning is a form of experiential learning that blends classroom instruction with community service. Participants included 3 high school students with severe disabilities enrolled in a private faith-based school, 5 school staff, and the food pantry coordinator. Data were collected over a 6-month period from observations, interviews, and a focus group. Findings indicate students partially participated in service-learning with supports using a strengths-based approach. Barriers to participation included unclear paraprofessionals' roles, uncertain project priorities, and insufficient supports for communication and behavior. Curricular goals addressed emphasized Jewish values and functional skills. An extension of Furco's service-learning theoretical model is proposed to conceptualize service-learning as being situated along a continuum from supported volunteering to vocational training.

Service-learning (SL) is a promising teaching practice that blends classroom instruction with community service. Common components of SL include investigation, preparation/planning, action, reflection, evaluation, and celebration (Billig, 2011; Dymond, Chun, Kim, & Renzaglia, 2013). Students begin by investigating issues in the community, and selecting a project that meets both a community need and their curricular objectives. Once a project is selected, preparation and planning occur to help students learn skills needed to engage in the project and coordinate activities with the community partner who will benefit from the project. During the action phase, students work together to complete service tasks in the community or at school, depending on the nature of the project. Reflection occurs throughout SL and involves students making connections between their engagement in service and the curricular objectives of the project. SL also includes an evaluation of the impact of the service on meeting the community need and an assessment of the curricular goals achieved by students. Projects conclude with a celebration to recognize the contributions of the students and any other partners involved.

SL has been described as a teaching method that is challenging to define or to differentiate from other forms of experiential learning (Furco, 1996). One method proposed by Furco to distinguish SL from other experience-based programs is to examine who is the intended beneficiary of a service activity and how much emphasis is placed on service versus the learning objectives of a project. Programs that have a service component will fall along a continuum based on these two factors, with SL being placed in the center of the continuum. A SL project is mutually beneficial for a community partner and students when a balance is achieved between service and learning. Other forms of experiential education, such as volunteering or internships, would lie at opposite ends of the continuum with a heavy emphasis on service for volunteering and conversely a primary focus on meeting learning objectives for an internship. Either of these forms of experiential education could align more closely with SL by adjusting the emphasis on service or learning goals (Furco, 1996).

According to a national study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS; 2008), approximately 35% of secondary schools, 25% of middle schools, and 20% of elementary schools in the United States use SL. The subject areas in which these schools most frequently included SL were social studies (52%), science (42%), and language arts (34%). Special education was also identified by 13% of schools as a context in which SL was used. Although CNCS (2008) estimates that approximately 36% of all students participate in SL, data are not available on the frequency with which students with disabilities participate.

In an effort to better understand how SL has been used with students with disabilities, Dymond, Renzaglia, and Slagor (2011) examined peer-reviewed journal articles published between 1990 and 2007 in which students with disabilities were providers of service during SL (i.e., not beneficiaries of a SL project). Most articles described SL at the high school level (53%), and of these articles, 67% reported on SL activities that took place in settings that only included students with disabilities. Articles predominantly focused on students with behavioral disorders (47%) with only 18% profiling students with severe disabilities.

Students with severe disabilities (i.e., students with intellectual disability, autism, or multiple disabilities) with significant levels of impairment require extensive supports to learn and participate in daily life. SL has been advocated as a strategy for including students with severe disabilities in meaningful learning activities with peers across a variety of curriculum areas. Examples include socializing with nursing home residents (Kleinert et al., 2004), creating a community garden (Burns, Storey, & Certo, 1999), creating digital brochures to advertise American Red Cross programs (Dymond, Neeper, & Fones, 2010), and reading to children at a daycare center (Gent & Dymond, 2015).

A growing literature base is emerging that describes strategies for engaging students with severe disabilities in SL (see Carter, Harvey, Lounds Taylor, & Gotham, 2013; Carter, Swedeen, & Moss, 2012; Dymond et al., 2010; Dymond, Renzaglia, & Chun, 2008; Kleinert et al., 2004). These strategies emphasize preplanning how students will participate, selecting appropriate activities, determining types and level of supports, grouping students with peers who do not have disabilities, and encouraging partial participation. The principle of partial participation, first described by Baumgart et al. (1982), asserts students with severe disabilities should be taught skills that enable them to partially participate in age appropriate activities (with appropriate adaptations and supports) when the achievement of full independence is unlikely or not possible.

Although strategies exist for engaging students with severe disabilities in SL, only two research studies have investigated the use of SL with this population. Brill (1994) surveyed 13 middle and high school special education teachers in one state about the benefits of SL for their students. Teachers reported increased academic, behavior, socialization, and functional skills; improved attendance; and the development of relationships with peers without disabilities. Burns et al. (1999) surveyed students without disabilities to determine their attitudes about students with severe disabilities pre- and postparticipation in SL. They found that students' attitudes improved when they participated as equal partners in SL; however, changes in attitude did not occur when the project focused on helping students with severe disabilities.

Research to date has not explored how students with severe disabilities participate in SL and the curricular goals that are addressed. An examination of these issues could lead to a better understanding of how high school students with severe disabilities can meet their individualized goals within the context of SL and the barriers that interfere with achieving a balance between service and learning. Curricular choices for high school students with severe disabilities are particularly important given the rate at which these students typically learn and the limited time they have left in school (Dymond, Renzaglia, & Hutchins, 2015; McDonnell, 2010). The purpose of this study, therefore, was to address the following research questions: (a) How do high school students with severe disabilities participate in SL and (b) what curricular goals are addressed with high school students with severe disabilities during SL?

Method

A multiple case study design (Patton, 2015) was employed that focused on three students with severe disabilities who participated in the Peah Academy food pantry SL project. Pseudonyms are used for all settings and participants.

School Setting

Peah Academy is a private, nonprofit Jewish high school for students with moderate to severe disabilities located in a large Midwestern city in the United States. The school is physically located in the same building as Binah Academy, a Jewish college preparatory program that serves approximately 280 students. Students with high incidence disabilities who typically would not qualify for Peah or Binah are admitted to Binah under a separate program that allows them to participate in general education classes and receive support in a resource room. The programs at both schools are based on traditional Jewish education, but Jewish affiliation is not a requirement for enrollment. Approximately 30% of the students enrolled at Binah and Peah are from non-Jewish families. All of the students are of European-American ethnicity, and none qualify as low-income status.

At the time of the study, 11 students were enrolled at Peah. One special education teacher and six paraprofessionals provided instruction and educational support to the students. The curriculum focused primarily on independent living and vocational skills (i.e., functional skills), and emphasized preparing students for life after high school. Most skills were taught in the special education classroom or the community. Students from Peah had limited contact with their peers from Binah. They ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria together, but they did not attend the same general education classes. Two students from Peah were integrated into religious instruction during davening, or morning prayer sessions; however, all other students received religious instruction in the special education classroom. Around the Jewish holidays, students from Peah and Binah collaborated on short-term SL projects. These projects typically involved providing assistance to local Jewish families in need.

SL Project

SL is an intrinsic component of the curriculum at Peah Academy. One of the three pillars of the Jewish faith, Gemilut Hassadim, means performing acts of kindness by serving others. Two other central tenets of Judaism include Tikkun olam, a call to repair the world, and tzedaka, charity (Greenberg, 2001). To meet this call to service, the special education teacher at Peah approached the coordinator of the Midwest Food Pantry to explore the possibility of developing a SL project that could be completed on an ongoing basis. The coordinator indicated that the food pantry received a truckload of approximately 6 tons of nonperishable food every 2 weeks and help was needed unloading the truck and stocking the pantry. A decision was made to involve the students at Peah in a manner that would address the students' educational goals and also meet the needs of the food pantry.

The project at the Midwest Food Pantry was purposefully selected for this case study because the SL project's extended duration afforded opportunities to examine the manner in which students participated and curricular goals were addressed. At the time of the study, the SL project was entering its third year of operation and nine students from Peah were currently participating. The students went to the food pantry once every 2 weeks for approximately two hours. During each visit, they worked on a variety of tasks including transporting cases of food from the delivery truck to the food pantry, removing individual cans of food from cases and placing them on a counter, shelving cans in correct locations by matching labels and following directions from the food pantry coordinator (i.e., community partner), breaking down empty boxes, sorting out spoiled foods, and cleaning inside the food pantry. Students participated in the SL project with adults from the community who did not have disabilities and volunteered at the food pantry. These adults briefly interacted with students while engaged in service tasks but were not participants in the study.

Participants

The participants in this study included three students with severe disabilities, five school staff members, and the food pantry coordinator.

Students

Three students with severe disabilities and diverse support needs were purposefully selected for this study. Patton (2015) suggests that maximum variation within a single case enables a more accurate description and understanding of the shared and differing experiences of participants of a program. In order to select the students, 2 full days of observations were conducted at Peah and the Midwest Food Pantry. Students were selected who represented maximum variability with respect to intellectual ability, challenging behavior, communication style, mobility, and medical needs.

Rebecca

Rebecca was a 16-year-old female with intellectual disability with a moderate level of impairment. She was born with a rare genetic disorder that affects the autonomic nervous system. Rebecca received support and constant medical monitoring by a nurse who was assigned to her throughout the school day. She primarily used a wheelchair with assistance for mobility, but could walk for short distances with support. Rebecca's assigned nurse pushed Rebecca's wheelchair to transport her to most locations, but when provided the opportunity, Rebecca could push her wheelchair independently about 5 feet before tiring. Rebecca received nourishment and hydration through a gastrostomy tube (i.e., g-tube) at scheduled intervals throughout the day. She spoke using short sentences of three to five words; however, communication partners occasionally had difficulty understanding her speech due to articulation errors.

Leah

Leah was a 15-year-old female with intellectual disability with a severe level of impairment. She was born with a brain disorder that impacts temperature regulation and motor function. Leah used a wheelchair with assistance for mobility and received one-on-one support from a paraprofessional. She could independently push her wheelchair for approximately 10 feet at a time before tiring. She primarily communicated using four idiosyncratic signs and by verbalizing or gesturing yes or no. Leah also used a speech output device (i.e., a form of augmentative and alternative communication, AAC) to make food and drink choices at school. The AAC device was a four-grid system in which messages could be recorded to play when Leah touched one of the grids.

Micah

Micah was a 14-year-old male with autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and intellectual disability with a moderate level of impairment. He ambulated independently and could easily navigate stairs at the food pantry while carrying a case of canned goods using both hands. Micah most frequently communicated verbally with short phrases of two to four words, and he often engaged in echolalia and repetitive behaviors, such as spinning, tapping objects, and rearranging chairs in a room. He received support in the form of verbal prompts from school staff approximately every one to three minutes to remain on task while at school and the food pantry. At school, he typed the posted activity schedule into his iPod Touch™ and would refer back to his schedule independently during the day between activities. The schedule consisted of five to seven activities such as prayer, food pantry, lunch, and home.

School staff

The special education teacher had 15 years of teaching experience and held a K-12 special education teaching certificate. She included her students in short-term SL projects organized by Binah Academy; however, the food pantry project was the first SL project she initiated and organized. Throughout the project she collaborated with the food pantry coordinator to define project activities and schedule visits. At the food pantry, she supervised groups of students and directed six school staff.

The four paraprofessionals who worked most closely with the selected students at the food pantry were also recruited as participants. Three of the paraprofessionals had worked at Peah and with the food pantry project for 3 years. The fourth paraprofessional was in her first year working at the school and was new to the food pantry project. All of the paraprofessionals were assigned to support either individual students or a small group of students while at the food pantry. One of the paraprofessionals also served as the speech therapist.

Food pantry coordinator

The food pantry coordinator was responsible for the day-to-day operations at the food pantry, including scheduling and training volunteers. Although students from other school programs volunteered at the food pantry, the students from Peah were her first volunteers with disabilities. The food pantry coordinator greeted the students upon arrival, informed the special education teacher of tasks that needed to be accomplished, and provided direction and support to the students during each visit.

Data Collection

Data were collected from observations, interviews, and a focus group. Data collection totaled 10 days in the field, over a period of 6 months.

Observations

An observation protocol (see Table 1) was developed following a review of the literature on SL. Guiding questions within the protocol focused on three areas: curriculum, participation, and context. One qualitative researcher and two content experts reviewed the protocol to ensure consistency between the focus of the observations and the research questions. The form was piloted during two observations at the food pantry. Minor adjustments were made to clarify definitions of categories observed.

Table 1

Guiding Questions for Observations and Method for Recording

Guiding Questions for Observations and Method for Recording
Guiding Questions for Observations and Method for Recording

Nine observations were conducted. These included two full day general observations of the classroom and food pantry activities, followed by two to three observations for each student. The duration of each student observation was approximately two hours and included travel to the food pantry, engagement in the SL project, and travel back to school. Only one student was observed each day and the order of students observed was rotated when possible based on student attendance.

Observations are best selected around cohesive activities (Patton, 2015). Therefore, the larger SL activity for an observation session was divided into smaller individual activities. A new observation protocol was used for each activity. A new activity was defined as a change in task or instructional format, or an announcement of a transition between activities by a staff member or student. During observations, the researcher stood within a few feet of the student, in a position that did not impede the student or others from engaging in activities. Data were recorded on a tablet computer using a stylus. Guiding questions for each category were used to prompt descriptive notes or the marking of checkboxes. Following the final activity of a session, a research memo was written to expand on the data collected.

Interviews and focus group

Two interviews were conducted with the special education teacher, one interview was conducted with the food pantry coordinator, and one focus group was conducted with the four paraprofessionals who had the greatest number of interactions with the three students. The interviews and focus group each took approximately 45 minutes. A focus group was used with paraprofessionals in order to allow for similar participants to interact, thereby resulting in a richer description of experiences (Patton, 2015). All data collection occurred following the final student observation, except the first special education teacher interview, which occurred before conducting observations.

Preliminary interview and focus group interview guides were developed based on literature specific to SL and curriculum planning for students with severe disabilities. The questions focused on the aims of the SL project, participants' roles, the curricular goals for students, how students participated, and the supports that were provided. The interview guides were reviewed by one qualitative researcher and two content experts, and piloted with three special educators from outside Peah who had experience with SL. Minor modifications were made to the wording of questions to improve clarity. Interviews were conducted in a quiet location at the school or at the food pantry. The interviews and focus group were audio recorded, and a research assistant recorded notes during the focus group to aid in later transcription. During the focus group, procedures for establishing rapport and eliciting responses from the participants included describing the role of the moderator and the research assistant, and establishing ground rules for responding (Patton, 2015).

Data Analysis

Audio recordings from the interviews and focus group were transcribed verbatim. Summaries of each interview were sent to the respective participants to conduct a member check. No responses were received from school staff, but the food pantry coordinator responded with feedback, which resulted in minor changes to her interview summary.

Data were analyzed using a constant comparative approach (Patton 2015) that involved coding individual data sources followed by coding across data sources. The first author assumed the lead role in coding all data and met with the second author weekly during data analysis to discuss the codes and their meaning. The second author confirmed consistency in the coding within and across data sources following the formation of categories and again after the final themes emerged.

Observation data were analyzed first, one student at a time. The field notes section of the form (see Table 1) was analyzed by assigning codes to small segments of the data. After all field notes were coded, codes were compared across observation days for the same student to identify similarities and differences. Data from the checkbox sections of the forms were analyzed by observation day to determine consistency among the activities observed. For example, if three activities were observed during an observation day, three observation forms were completed, and responses within checkboxes were compared across activities. A research memo was created to summarize the checkbox data. Relevant checkbox data was appended within the coded field notes to provide greater context for each code. After checkbox data from each observation day were analyzed individually, data across observation days were compared and the research memo revised to describe the instructional context and curriculum addressed. Once data for the first student was analyzed, the same process was used to code observation data for the second student, and then the third student. Similar to the field notes section of the observation form, interview and focus group data were analyzed by reading the transcripts multiple times and developing codes, which were applied to segments of meaning within the transcripts.

The second round of analysis involved making comparisons across the three students' observational data and across the interview data. Codes developed across data were merged to develop categories of data that fit together through shared characteristics. The categories provided a means to organize and subsequently interpret the data (Patton, 2015). Themes emerged during the final round of analysis through triangulation across data sources. An audit trail was maintained to document changes made throughout the coding process (Brantlinger, Jimenez, Klingner, Pugach, & Richardson, 2005).

Credibility was enhanced through maintaining a reflexive role while searching for disconfirming evidence and posing alternative explanations for the findings, using two researchers to assure consistency of coding and interpretations, member checking, and triangulation of data sources (Brantlinger et al., 2005). The researchers assume that students with severe disabilities learn most effectively when instruction is systematic and practices are evidence-based, and reflected on these assumptions throughout data collection and analysis. The researchers did not have a prior relationship with the school staff or the food pantry.

Findings

Participation in SL

Partial participation was the one overarching theme that emerged to capture the manner in which students with severe disabilities participated in the SL project. The variety of tasks that needed to be accomplished at the food pantry afforded numerous and diverse opportunities for partial participation. When the special education teacher was asked why she selected this particular SL project, she stated, “I just think that the food pantry is a great opportunity for us because there are so many different things our kids can do, so we can find different jobs for them that may suit them.” All participants interviewed commented that the variety of tasks that needed to be accomplished enabled students to work on tasks that were matched to their abilities.

Partial participation was enhanced through a strengths-based approach in which the special education teacher and occasionally the food pantry coordinator assigned tasks to specific students to match their strengths and needs for support. Micah was assigned multiple tasks that matched his physical abilities, organizational skills, and preference for movement, such as rearranging and organizing items in an industrial refrigerator and unloading the delivery truck. In contrast, Leah participated in the same task each visit, which involved unloading food items from boxes and placing them on the food pantry counter. This task matched Leah's strength in persisting with single-step tasks and grasping objects while accommodating for her limited mobility and fine motor skills. Rebecca completed tasks that were less physically demanding than other students, but that matched her interests in collaborating with peers and adults, and utilized her relatively strong upper body motor skills. She primarily worked on breaking down cardboard boxes after other students and staff had emptied them. This task could be completed from a seated position and allowed for interactions with staff members, other volunteers, and peers as they handed her the boxes.

The three students required various supports to maintain engagement and partially participate while at the food pantry. All students benefitted from verbal prompts or redirection to help them focus on their work. Micah often stopped working to engage in repetitive behaviors. He required frequent verbal redirection to continue working on a task. Rebecca and Leah occasionally stopped working when distracted by other stimuli in the setting, but resumed work when verbally prompted. In addition to verbal prompts, physical supports and material adaptations also helped facilitate partial participation. Physical supports were needed to provide stability for Rebecca while standing and for Leah to lift heavy items. For Rebecca and Leah, very simple adaptations to materials made the difference between needing physical support to complete a task and being able to complete it relatively independently. For example, Leah's assigned paraprofessional removed the sides of cardboard boxes so that Leah could reach the cans of food while seated in her wheelchair. Partially participating did not diminish the perception that the students were making a contribution by completing authentic tasks, as expressed by the special education teacher. “They [might] need help carrying the box to the door, but they're still doing a service.” The food pantry coordinator also acknowledged the students' contribution. “We have a consistent crew that we can rely on. It's actually really helpful.”

The food pantry coordinator, more frequently than the school staff, provided a choice when offering assistance to students who appeared to be struggling with a task. For example, she asked Rebecca, “Would you like some help or do you want to do it by yourself?” By treating the students like any other volunteer, the food pantry coordinator presented opportunities for students to have control over their own work. During another instance, Rebecca was working on breaking down boxes and had said she wanted to complete the task by herself. Her nurse was repeatedly taking over the job when the food pantry coordinator stepped in, handed Rebecca a box, and stated, “You're in charge” and then walked away. Rebecca smiled and focused all of her attention on successfully breaking down the box by herself.

Although students were able to partially participate in tasks with adult support and direction, specific barriers impacted student participation. The greatest barrier was lack of clarity among paraprofessionals regarding their role and the priorities of the project. In particular, paraprofessionals expressed uncertainty regarding whether they should be focused on supporting students' active participation in the project (regardless of whether the task was finished) or ensuring the tasks students were assigned were completed (even if it meant limiting students' participation). The school staff often did a greater share of the work than the students, and this was a barrier to student participation that was identified by the paraprofessionals and observed onsite. The paraprofessionals interviewed described their uncertainty regarding the priorities of the project, and they admitted that this often led to staff taking over tasks from students so that everything would be finished when it was time to return to school. One paraprofessional pondered,

Are we there to get everything done in 2 hours or are we there to let the students do it?…Is it really for our students, or is it a service project for the community? Sometimes…the staff does too much. That is just because we are trying to get so much done.

The paraprofessionals stated that if the students were expected to do more of the tasks independently, then less would be accomplished at the food pantry each visit.

Challenging behavior was not observed frequently, but it was perceived to be a barrier to including all Peah students in the SL project. The special education teacher explained that three male students who had displayed challenging behavior at the food pantry in the past no longer participated because they “couldn't handle” the environment. In addition, school staff described one nonfocus student who occasionally engaged in challenging behavior at the food pantry as benefitting the least from the project. Of the three students observed, Micah required the greatest amount of verbal prompting to remain on-task. Micah also did not bring his iPod Touch™ to the food pantry, which contained his activity schedule and could have provided him with a checklist for each task. This assistive technology may have enabled Micah to have longer periods of engagement with less prompting.

Curricular Goals

Two themes emerged regarding the curricular goals addressed during SL activities. These themes focused on Jewish values and functional skills.

Jewish values

The special education teacher emphasized two tenets of Jewish faith, mitzvah and chesed, as the most important curricular goals for her students during SL activities. A mitzvah is a Jewish commandment to do good deeds for others, and chesed is voluntarily performing acts of kindness (Kimelman-Block & Menkowitz, 2007). The special education teacher described the importance of these goals for her students.

We talk about doing chesed all the time and doing good deeds for other people, and that a mitzvah is something you do out of your heart and not just something you have to do. And they kind of learn that every day here.

By performing the service tasks at the food pantry, the students were directly addressing the curricular goal of developing the values of Judaism. When asked why the special education teacher had her students engage in SL activities at the food pantry, she responded that she was, “teaching them the values of Torah. …You give to people who are less fortunate than you. You are always good to your neighbors and kind.” Even though many of the paraprofessionals were not Jewish themselves, they had an awareness of the importance of mitzvah within the SL project and reinforced this concept in their work with the students and new school staff members. For example, while waiting for the elevator at the food pantry, a paraprofessional told a student, “We will get down there and do a mitzvah.” A nurse, who was new to working in the school, overhead the paraprofessional and asked him to clarify this concept, “Mitzvah? That means good deed?” The paraprofessional responded, “Yeah, like good works.”

Jewish values were taught at the food pantry during brief reflection activities. A single, structured whole group reflection was observed as well as a few instances of informal reflections with individual students. The whole group reflection consisted of a school staff member leading students in a choral response to a series of questions reflecting on what they had accomplished that day.

Staff: What did the shelves look like when we got here?

Students: Empty!

Staff: What do the shelves look like now?

Students: Full!

Staff: How did we help?

Students: People won't be hungry.

Staff: Who did all of this work?

Students: I did!

Staff: Great work everyone. You did a good deed today. A mitzvah.

One of the paraprofessionals described the purpose of the whole group reflection as a means for the students to understand how they were helping others. For the informal reflections, the school staff members stated that they tried to emphasize to the students that they were doing a good deed. Informal reflections were observed in a few instances between a paraprofessional and a single student. For example, a paraprofessional connected the work Leah was going to perform to Jewish values by telling her that they were going to perform a mitzvah and asking her if she was going to help.

A significant barrier to addressing Jewish values curricular goals was the limited nature of the reflection activities and the students' lack of understanding regarding the acts of altruism they were performing. The special education teacher confirmed that reflection was not an activity that was intentionally planned or implemented with the students because she believed they would not understand the concept. When discussing the reasons for not incorporating structured reflection activities, she explained, “Some of our kids…once it's done, it's done. So reflecting on it means nothing to them.” Additionally, the paraprofessionals noted that some of the students did not comprehend the altruistic purpose of their work at the food pantry.

Micah, he is going to do it just because he is supposed to do it. You know, I don't think he is going to really get the value out of it, the altruistic piece of it. I mean to him, it is what I do.

Functional skills

Functional skills were the predominant curricular goals addressed, although the importance of these goals, as described by the special education teacher, was not as great as the goals specific to Jewish values. Observations confirmed that two to four individualized education program (IEP) objectives were addressed with each student during each observation. These objectives focused on participating in vocational tasks, communicating effectively, and increasing mobility. Almost all of the tasks students performed at the food pantry were vocational in nature, thus vocational skills were the primary skills addressed. Rebecca engaged in breaking down cardboard boxes and stocking shelves. Leah engaged in unloading boxes. Micah engaged in unloading the delivery truck, transporting boxes downstairs, stocking and organizing shelves in a walk-in refrigerator, and cleaning work areas by wiping counters and sweeping. All students engaged in learning general vocational skills such as following directions and appropriate workplace communication; however, these skills were not specified in the students' IEP. Vocational IEP objectives were broadly written to focus on “participating in” or “practicing” vocational tasks.

Each of the students had one or more communication objectives that were addressed during each visit to the food pantry. Within the context of collaborative group work and one-on-one interactions with staff and peers, students had opportunities to engage in a variety of interactions where communication goals were addressed. For example, Micah had an IEP objective of asking questions to obtain information. At one point, Micah was not engaged in a task, and a paraprofessional prompted him to ask a question, “When you don't know what to do, use your words. Say, ‘what should I do?'” Rebecca regularly greeted peers to initiate interactions and both asked and answered wh-questions, which addressed some of her IEP objectives. Although Leah addressed an IEP objective of answering questions with responses to yes and no questions, she was not able to address her other IEP objective of increasing the length of her utterances because her AAC device was left at school.

Two of the students had IEP objectives for increasing independent mobility, and these were addressed the least. Rebecca's objective focused on walking safely in the community and Leah's objective involved self-propelling her wheelchair. Both of the students could have regularly practiced these mobility skills during naturally occurring opportunities, such as each time they entered the food pantry or when they needed to move to a different area, but this was only observed once for each student. These instances included when Rebecca's nurse had her walk behind the food pantry counter with support to engage in a shelving task and when Leah's paraprofessional asked her to wheel herself into the food pantry from outdoors. In most sessions, the special education teacher was observed to prompt the paraprofessionals to hurry to start tasks and to quickly get students to the school van at the end of the session, which may have discouraged the paraprofessionals from working with Rebecca and Leah on mobility skills.

A major barrier to addressing functional skills curricular goals was that neither the paraprofessionals nor the food pantry coordinator were knowledgeable about the IEP objectives targeted for the students. This resulted in missed opportunities for learning and inconsistent delivery of instruction on IEP objectives. Systematic instructional procedures and reflection activities were not observed. When asked about the curricular goals addressed at the food pantry, paraprofessionals identified several general goals related to functional skills (e.g., following directions, performing physical tasks, being patient with each other) and Jewish values, but they were not familiar with individual student goals. One paraprofessional had a desire to know the specific objectives for the student assigned to her, so she could convey them to the student. Leah's paraprofessional stated, “I just want Leah to be able to know really what the goals are for her.” The food pantry coordinator shared that she was unaware of the student's individual goals, but she thought they would gain social skills and physical health benefits. She mused, “I assumed that it would be a great exercise for them in cooperation and fine motor skills, getting exercise…I don't really know much about the kids' IEPs or anything. I just assume that there are these benefits.”

Another barrier existed because needed supports to address vocational and communication objectives were not provided. For example, Leah had an IEP objective of increasing the length of her utterances to four units. This student was primarily non-verbal, and yet her AAC device was left at school during every visit to the food pantry. Micah had an IEP objective of performing vocational tasks with visual supports, such as a checklist or schedule, but these supports were not provided. At school, Micah used an activity schedule on his iPod Touch™ as a visual support, but this piece of assistive technology was not brought to the food pantry.

Discussion

The present study provides an examination of how students with severe disabilities participated in SL and the curricular goals they addressed. Students engaged in the project through partial participation, which was facilitated by selecting a SL project that included a diverse array of tasks, individually matching tasks to students' strengths, and providing appropriate supports to students during the project. Barriers to participation included lack of clarity regarding paraprofessional roles, ambiguous project priorities, and challenging student behaviors. The curricular areas of Jewish values and functional skills were addressed within the SL project. Individual and group reflection activities were employed to address curricular goals focused on Jewish values (i.e., mitzvah and chesed) and functional skills (i.e., participating in vocational tasks, communicating effectively, and increasing mobility) were taught through students' involvement in various service tasks. Barriers to addressing curricular goals in the SL project included lack of a shared understanding among adults about the learning objectives for each student, absence of specific supports needed for communication and behavior, and the limited nature of reflection activities.

Service, Learning, or Service-Learning?

Furco (1996) describes experiential education programs as falling along a continuum where at one end there is a focus on service that benefits the community (e.g., volunteering) and on the other end there is a focus on student learning (e.g., internships, practicums). SL occurs when programs provide equal emphasis on both service and learning. The findings from the present study can be viewed through an extension of Furco's model by conceptualizing how vocational curriculum (i.e., the predominant curriculum addressed at the food pantry) is delivered through service activities.

The features unique to involving high school students with severe disabilities can potentially situate SL projects at either end of a continuum, as supported volunteering or vocational training (see Figure 1). At one end is supported volunteering where the emphasis is on service, but students can also explore career options and learn general work readiness skills. SL can support career exploration by introducing students to a variety of careers and work environments (Peterson, Wardwell, Will, & Campana, 2014) in which teachers can evaluate students' strengths and preferences (Gent & Dymond, 2015). Learning specific skills is not a priority; therefore, greater emphasis can be focused on ensuring service tasks are completed. Vocational training is situated at the opposite end of the continuum. The emphasis is on learning specific job skills within the context of a service activity. Vocational training moves beyond career awareness by enabling students with severe disabilities to learn work and work-related skills that prepare them for postschool employment (Dymond et al., 2015; McDonnell, 2010). Since greater emphasis is placed on skill acquisition, learning takes priority over the quality or quantity of work completed. Ideally in vocationally oriented SL projects, a balance is achieved between service and learning in which students meaningfully contribute to service while achieving intended curricular goals.

Figure 1

A continuum of service-learning, with projects that emphasize service goals while providing opportunities for career exploration falling on the supported volunteering side of the continuum, and projects that emphasize learning goals related to specific vocational skills falling on the vocational training side of the continuum.

Figure 1

A continuum of service-learning, with projects that emphasize service goals while providing opportunities for career exploration falling on the supported volunteering side of the continuum, and projects that emphasize learning goals related to specific vocational skills falling on the vocational training side of the continuum.

The food pantry project can be categorized as falling on the supported volunteering end of the SL continuum. The special education teacher prioritized Jewish values curricular goals, which focused on service. Emphasis was placed on meeting the needs of the food pantry while also providing opportunities for the students to engage in career exploration by partially participating in vocational tasks. The special education teacher made purposeful choices to ensure the service goals were achieved. These included selecting a SL project that involved a variety of tasks that matched students' strengths and excluding students from the project who had exhibited challenging behavior previously in the community.

Vocational and other functional skills, although addressed, were not explicitly taught, and the paraprofessionals and food pantry coordinator were unaware of these specific learning goals for the students. The food pantry SL project had potential to include greater focus on vocational training if instruction on work and work-related skills had been provided in a consistent manner. This could have been accomplished by establishing clear learning objectives for each student, using systematic instruction, incorporating students' AAC and assistive technology into instruction, collecting and evaluating student data, and allowing students to sample a variety of jobs at the food pantry (Dymond et al., 2015; Gent & Dymond, 2015; McDonnell, 2010). If the focus of the project were to shift more towards vocational training, expectations for the amount and quality of service performed would need to be adjusted to ensure greater attention to student learning. In addition, appropriate supports would need to be put in place to support students with challenging behaviors who previously were excluded from the project. Students with challenging behavior can be successful in vocational settings with appropriate supports and training (Gent & Dymond, 2015; West & Patton, 2010).

SL has been advocated in the literature as a means of promoting positive perceptions of people with disabilities as valued and contributing community members (Carter et al., 2013; Gent & Dymond, 2015). Although the literature on individuals with severe disabilities volunteering in the community is very limited, the potential benefit to improve community members' perceptions of individuals with severe disabilities has been suggested (Shoultz & Lakin, 2001). Volunteering can also open avenues for future employment by increasing students' social networks (Trainor et al., 2011). The supported volunteering nature of the food pantry project enabled the Peah students to provide a valuable contribution to their community through partial participation. Additional reflection activities would strengthen the link between students' participation and Jewish values curricular goals focused on learning how to serve others.

Limitations

There are limitations that should be considered when interpreting the findings. First, the students attended a faith-based, private high school where all students were of European American ethnicity and none were low-income status. The experiences of students in the present study may not be representative of students with severe disabilities who participate in SL at public high schools that include greater economic and cultural diversity or other faith-based high schools. Second, although SL is typically described as including investigation, preparation/planning, action, reflection, evaluation, and celebration, the focus of the present study was on the action phase, which limited opportunities to examine curricular goals addressed during other phases of the project. Third, only one of the six participants responded to requests for member checking although other methods of ensuring credibility were employed. Finally, students with severe disabilities participated in the project with adults without disabilities. Their participation likely differed from SL projects in which students collaborate with same-age peers without disabilities.

Implications for Practice

Although limitations of the present study restrict generalization, the findings point toward several recommendations for planning and implementing SL projects that involve high school students with severe disabilities. Chief among these recommendations is that teachers engage in careful planning to ensure SL projects are structured to promote a balance between service and learning. Too much focus on service may result in supported volunteering whereas too much focus on learning may result in vocational training. Ideally SL projects should be selected that will address the predetermined learning objectives for students and monitored over time to make sure the objectives continue to be systematically taught as the project is implemented. Furthermore, goals and objectives for each student must be clearly defined and communicated with all staff that is responsible for instruction. Expectations for how students participate in the project and staff roles in facilitating that participation must be defined to ensure that the learning needs of the students are met as well as the service needs of the organization.

Implications for Future Research

This study provides an initial step towards understanding how students with severe disabilities participate in SL and the curricular goals that can be addressed. Future research should seek to build on this study in three areas. First, since this study focused on the action phase of SL, future research should examine how students with severe disabilities participate during all phases of SL and how connections are made with the curriculum during each phase. Second, the present study examined the SL practices of students attending a faith-based, private high school in a project that did not include same-age peers. Future studies should explore SL practices for students with severe disabilities in public high schools engaged in projects that include students without disabilities. Finally, research should seek to determine whether outcomes for students with severe disabilities vary related to career awareness, vocational skills, and employment based on the type of SL they receive (i.e., supported volunteering, vocational training, or somewhere in the middle) and the length of the SL experience.

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Author notes

The content of this article was developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, #H325D090087. However, the content does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Project Officer, Louise J. Tripoli.