CWI Summer WEST Institute participants down in the” river bed”, exploring the Los Angeles River revitalization project, July 2015.


Integrating service-learning into curricula is not an easy task.   To address service-learning in a meaningful way can require time and effort from the teacher, as well as support from the school administration. Sometimes it is easier to pull together a one-time community service project, complete it, and move on to the next lesson. High quality service-learning involves teachers and students as partners in both projects and learning. It is the much deeper benefits and lasting outcomes for the participants, along with the intentional connections to classroom taught skills and content that make service-learning the clear choice for more schools and teachers.


Background: CWI Origin, Mission, and Services

The Community Works Institute (CWI) grew out of a local effort to introduce placed-based education, service-learning, and sustainability in the classroom. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995, CWI’s mission is to support and promote exemplary teaching strategies and practices for K-16 educators and community programs that support students in becoming caring, responsible, and active members of their communities.


CWI offers a variety of professional development opportunities for K-16 and community-based educators in the United States and internationally, including on-site trainings, retreats, coaching, and consulting. Their signature offering is a series of summer institutes that integrate field-tested service-learning best practices and principles of sustainability to engage K-16 students in academically based service that contributes to sustainable communities.   Educators who attend the summer institutes obtain an understanding for not just what service-learning is, but why service-learning works, how it works, and how to maximize its effect with students. One of the most powerful aspects of the institutes for educators is the opportunity it affords them to collaborate, share ideas, and make connections with like-minded people.


What is CWI doing differently?

CWI is leading the way for a shift in how service-learning is presented as part of a school’s curriculum. Through its work, CWI emphasizes the role of place-based education, with service-learning as the strategy, for creating sustainable communities. CWI has created a model for service-learning that focuses on creating learning experiences that enable students to apply skills and content knowledge to real needs in their local community. The model is informed by a set of best practices for service- learning that was developed nationally and later refined by several study groups of educators commissioned by CWI.


CWI Model for Service-Learning

The CWI model is built on a framework that sets one’s community (or place) as the context with service at the center of experience. The model consists of four core, interconnected principles that evolved from CWI’s work with educators over the last twenty years. These four principles are:

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  • A Compelling Sense of Purpose: The work resonates strongly with educators, students, and partners personally and has a clearly understood value to the community.
  • Academic Integrity: Learning objectives are well-defined, understood by all, and connected to local curriculum standards and school or program goals.
  • Engagement and Reciprocity: Emphasis is placed on investing students and all partners as real collaborators with shared meaningful roles in the work and the learning experience.
  • Meaningful Integrated Reflection: The experience and learning is intentionally deepened and reinforced through multiple and creative forms of reflection.


Curriculum projects and programs that use the CWI model incorporate field tested best practices (see below) for service-learning and community collaboration to meet the goal of contributing to a sustainable and just community.


Best Practices for Service Learning

The following set of instructional best practices were developed and refined over 20 years by CWI to guide educators in the planning and evaluation of curriculum and program design that embrace service-learning.

  1. Curricular Goals: Curricular goals and defined and stated.
  2. Assessment: Student achievement of curricular goals is regularly assessed.
  3. Service Goals: Service goals that meet a genuine community need are clearly stated and understood.
  4. Evaluation: Service goals are evaluated.
  5. Challenges: The learning and service goals stretch participants to develop in new or challenging ways.
  6. Participation: Selection, design, and evaluation of the project is shared by all participants, especially students.
  7. Diversity: Opportunities are offered to discuss and value differences and/or interact with a variety of individuals and groups.
  8. Community Connections: Connections to the community are made that build knowledge about the community, identify community resources, and cultivate partnerships.
  9. Participant Preparation: All participants are prepared with the knowledge and skills needed to perform the service.
  10. Reflection: All participants are involved in multiple methods of reflection.
  11. Celebration: All significant achievements are celebrated and participants are recognized.
  12. Reciprocity: Emphasis is placed on investing all participants and partners as real collaborators with meaningful roles in the learning experience.


Reflections from Institute Participants

CWI’s influence on advancing service-learning as an integral part of the curriculum is best conveyed by the educators who have benefited from attending CWI’s summer institutes. Here are two reflections shared by recent institute participants:


“The way I think about service-learning has changed for the betterment of the program I coordinate. I now see that service-learning is a tool that challenges students to think critically and pushes teachers to become better educators. I have learned about the significance of place when creating meaningful service experiences that resonate within the community. Moreover I have learned that sustainability must be an integral part of a service-learning agenda if there is to be any meaningful experience for anyone involved.” – Joey Valdes, Service-Learning Coordinator, Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School (NYC)


“…I had been struggling with the concept of service learning versus community service. I could see that students who were getting out into their communities and making connections were gaining skills, but I could not quantify or justify the time in order to make it feel like a comfortable option for me and my class. One of the most valuable things I took away from the week was how easy it is to tie service learning into the curriculum, and how much it can benefit all types of students…It makes so much sense to be learning about science, math, and economics through the many projects those students were able to experience, as opposed to sitting through lectures and reading a textbook. The concept of reciprocity was something that finally helped me to better understand the difference between service learning and community service. Students were providing a service that was appreciated by the community, but they were also learning valuable skills – both social and academic. This is what I will now be better able to communicate to those around me when I am planning a service learning component into my teaching.” –Nancy Mears


CWI Resources

CWI provides an array of resources for educators interested in service-learning and place-based education.

  • The CWI website ( is a repository of information, including the latest details on CWI’s summer institutes, videos, and publications.
  • CWI’s online educator network ( offers educators a platform to connect with like-minded people around the world, as well as tools for sharing ideas and examples of work in the service-learning field.
  • CWI publishes Community Works Journal (, an online magazine for educators that features essays, reflections, and curriculum overviews that highlight the importance of place, service, and sustainability to a relevant and meaningful education.