By Darcy Ellsworth Yow, Director of Community Engagement
Deeply embedded in the past, present and future of our school is how thoughtfully we consider the role and responsibility of every member of MCDS in the context of the larger world. Our Mission Statement and core values speak to our unwavering commitment to using the academic skills our students practice every day in the service of empathy and action.
Lofty goals for a K-8 school? Perhaps. But who else to lead the way than our students, who come to school every morning eager to learn, with a keen eye for injustice and seemingly insatiable energy and passion?
We want all members of our school to recognize that they can make a positive difference, no matter their age, gender or socioeconomic status.
Key to MCDS's approach to service learning and community engagement is a balance of empowerment and humility. We want all members of our school to recognize that they can make a positive difference, no matter their age, gender or socioeconomic status. But it is equally important that we all acknowledge we have much to learn from our community partners, and that there are assets and gifts to be found all around us.
We start with the youngest members of our community engaging in "service at home," with classroom jobs, playground responsibilities and lunch bunch duties driving home the message that service is not something that we do somewhere else, and that every community, no matter the resources, requires everyone to pitch in.
We work with some of our more than 50 community partners to hold "Family Community Engagement Saturdays" in the fall, in order to involve all members of our school in hands-on, direct and indirect, short and long-term group service opportunities.
Faculty and staff work side-by-side with our students throughout the year, acting as mentors to 8th graders working on their Community Action Plans and supporting local families transitioning out of homelessness or crisis -- from assessing needs to moving in furniture through Grateful Gatherings, a non-profit organization that donates household items to families in need.
In the Upper School, in addition to several days off campus working directly with community partners with links to our science, social studies, SEL and design thinking curricula, we dedicate regular class time to ensure that our community engagement experiences are reciprocal, meaningful and sustainable.
We know that meaningful, sustainable change comes primarily through authentic empathy-gaining, need-finding and reciprocal partnerships. We also recognize the reality that many ideas need funding to make them come alive. That said, we encourage students to think creatively about fundraising (beyond bake sales!) and also offer our 8th graders two opportunities to participate in grants, as recipients of funding as well as grantors.
After a year of class time and a semester of Community Internships at one of a dozen partner organizations, 8th grade students work in teams and use design thinking strategies to partner with agency staff to address a need in that community.
If funding is required, 8th graders are tasked with researching the most cost-effective ways to address that need and then have the option of applying for a grant from the school, for amounts ranging from $50-$1,000. Recent projects funded include helping to underwrite the cost of insulin kits for patients at the SF Free Clinic, purchasing art supplies for clients at The Cedars of Marin Textile Arts Center and gifting a much-needed wheelbarrow to The Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary.
As a complement to the internal grant program, a small group of 8th grade students is invited to sit on the other side of the table as a grant board, making decisions — collectively— about which programs to fund based on the applications from a variety of local non-profit organizations. Students first come to a consensus on what pressing social or environmental need they would like to address, then research and reach out directly to organizations that are working on that specific issue.
As applications come in, we have great discussions about our priorities, such as whether it's better to fund a program that wouldn't run at all without our support or better to fund a program that seems more sustainable, with many more diverse sources of funding. Past grant awardees include Refugee Transitions in San Francisco, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Rafael and Covenant House in Oakland.
As an MCDS alumna, mom of two alumnae and a teacher here since 1993, there is nothing that makes me prouder than our school's steadfast dedication to showing us all how to "lead effective and fulfilling lives as engaged global citizens in a complex multicultural and interdependent world."