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Service Learning

Since 2017, Durham Academy has made a deliberate shift from students performing acts of community service to students engaging in true service learning.

What's the difference? Well, community service is often a one-way street of benefit, with the volunteer performing an isolated task that helps out the beneficiary, but leaves little impact on the volunteer. In contrast, service-learning experiences are typically sustained activities that are paired with a curricular component. Since we shifted our focus to service learning at Durham Academy, our students and teachers have experienced more authentic partnerships with organizations. Both parties have benefited in real ways; our students have broadened their perspectives and capacity for empathy, while we hope that individuals who are part of the partner organizations truly feel heard and respected. 

Service Learning in Action

Durham Academy Preschoolers visit with residents at Emerald Pond retirement center.

Preschool: Intergenerational Connections

In 2014, a beautiful partnership was born with our neighbors living at the Emerald Pond senior living community, just across Pickett Road from Durham Academy. Over the course of each year, Durham Academy pre-kindergartners and kindergartners pay our neighbors several visits — to bring handmade seasonal decorations for common spaces at the center, for Halloween trick-or-treating with residents, for sing-a-longs and more.

Learn More About the Preschool's Partnership with Emerald Pond

Third-graders display items for sale at the pollinator gift shop.

Third Grade: Protecting Pollinators

Each Lower School grade level focuses its service learning efforts throughout the year on a particular issue or organization, and the third grade's focus is "The Power of Pollinators." Students learn about factors that are threatening pollinators — like bees, butterflies, moths and some birds — and why these creatures are so critical to our life on Earth. For many years, third-graders have crafted items (such as bookmarks, jewelry and magnets) to sell to fellow Lower Schoolers and Preschoolers at a pop-up shop, with the proceeds going to an important cause; this tradition lives on with the Pollinator Gift Shop, from which proceeds benefit an organization supporting biodiversity. 

Service learning efforts in other grade levels focus on the Ronald McDonald House (first grade); the Animal Protection Society (second grade); and Urban Ministries of Durham (fourth grade).

Seventh-graders prepare mass quantities of food as part of a service-learning project.

Seventh Grade: Understanding Food Insecurity

Service learning is baked into the Middle School advisory curriculum. Empathy is a focus of the seventh grade's advisory work, and they begin the year with a three-day deep dive into food insecurity here in Durham — hearing directly from professionals who are working to help food-insecure people and getting to work with local organizations that are addressing hunger. Students spend time working at farms and food pantries, preparing hot meals, and delivering food to homebound seniors.

Learn More About the Seventh-Grade Exploration of Food Insecurity

DA Upper School students walk with athletes at the Special Olympics Spring Games.

Upper School: Special Olympics

For nearly four decades, Durham Academy has hosted the Durham County Special Olympics Spring Games. On the day of the Spring Games, the Upper School cancels classes so that all Upper School students and faculty/staff members can be a part of the much-anticipated event. The day is filled with joy and friendly competition among hundreds of athletes who are served by exceptional children’s programs at Durham County public elementary schools — with DA students serving as athlete buddies, hosting face painting and photo booth stations, and running individual events.

Prior to the event each spring, Durham Academy Upper Schoolers participate in educational activities to learn more about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through this training, DA students learn about the importance of centering athletes at the event and how to ensure that each athlete feels respected and celebrated.

Learn What Special Olympics Means to DA

It’s difficult to foster true empathy or understanding through isolated interactions. It’s essential that our students possess context before entering a project and that they are able to reflect after they see a project through.

Ben Michelman
Middle School Community Engagement Coordinator & Language Arts Teacher

Service Learning News

At a time when the nation's blood banks at at the lowest they've been in many years — with the lowest number of people donating in the last 20 years — your donation matters more than ever. You can do your part to help save lives Tuesday, Feb. 20, and Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Durham Academy’s annual spring blood drive. The event will be held in the lobby of Kirby Gym on the Upper School campus from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. both days.

Read More about Spring Blood Drive is Feb. 20–21
Alumni Spotlight: From Warsaw to New York, Ava Pacchiana ’18 Holds Communities Together

When she completed her undergraduate degree and earned a two-year deferral to law school, Ava Pacchiana ’18 knew she wanted to spend her extended break doing something different. She did, indeed: expanding childhood education for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, walking 600 miles across France and Spain, and joining an organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.

Read More about Alumni Spotlight: From Warsaw to New York, Ava Pacchiana ’18 Holds Communities Together