DESCRIPTION OF THE SUCCESS STORY
The main actors involved in this success story were the "Diretora de Turma" (literally, class director, the teacher who is the mediator between the school and the family of a specific class, in this case a year 7 class of 24 students); the Religious Education teacher; the Arts teachers; the parents; the Red Cross Delegation of Castelo Branco; two charities: Santa Casa da Misericórdia (elderly people)and Casa de Santa Zita (children at risk). The story took place three years ago (school year 2010-2011) at Escola Secundária Nuno Álvares, Castelo Branco, Portugal. The Diretora de Turma identified problems of disinterest, irresponsible behaviours and unruly behaviour in the class and in one of the school meetings, which took place during the first term. During the first and second terms there was a large number of reported incidents inside the classroom (due to disrespect towards the teacher or the classmates) as well as in the playground; parents complained about aggressive attitudes of other students towards their children; there was also poor school achievement and lack of interest towards learning and school in general revealed by the great majority of these 24 students. The social and economic background of the 24 families involved was diverse, but many had to deal with a variety of social and economic problems.
The class director asked the teachers and the parents to take part in the process of helping the students to change their behaviour towards the school, the teachers and the colleagues, as well as to become more responsible for their actions. One of the parents suggested a protocol with the Red Cross in order to involve students in volunteering projects which would help them to become committed with the community and improve their sense of responsibility. The Religious Education teacher assumed the coordination of this part of the project with the whole class from year 7 and involved two other charities in the Volunteering Project (Santa Casa da Misericórdia and Casa de Santa Zita). The Volunteering Project consisted of 4 sub-projects with the Red Cross delegation in Castelo Branco (Subproject 1 - First Aid Course taught to the students and their families by a Red Cross first aids trainer; Subproject 2 - sorting, folding and organizing clothes and shoes to be donated by the Red Cross; Subproject 3 - the collection of economical recipes for the families supported by Red Cross; Subproject 4 - Food donation) and two other subprojects involving two charities: Santa Casa da Misericórdia (to involve the students with the care of elderly people) and Casa de Santa Zita (to involve the students with the situations of children at risk).
The volunteering project started in January 2011 and lasted until June (21 weeks) and the volunteer work was carried out on a weekly basis and involved all the students of the class, divided in small groups of 5 or 7. These students had the support of the Religious Education teacher, who went with them to the Institutions during her free time, as well as of two parents, who have also joined the Religious Education teacher in the coordination of the volunteering activities outside the school.
The students and their families worked together to collect the recipes. The idea was to provide healthy and tasty recipes to be cooked with the ingredients which were given by Red Cross to families in need (rice, pasta, sausages and canned tuna fish). Particularly important, the work involved the students and their families. Some even tested the recipes at home, before providing them. The Art teachers got involved in the compilation of the recipes to be sent to the Red Cross.
The First Aid Course was taught by a Red Cross first aid trainer, who came to the school on Friday afternoons, for a total amount of eight weeks (32 hours), involved 18 students and 14 students’ relatives (among them, mother, father, stepfather, grandmother, brother). Relatives, who before had never come to school to get involved in their children’s activities, took part in this project.
During this community project there was a significant reduction in the number of reported incidents inside the classroom, as well as the complaints made by the parents in terms of problems involving their children and other colleagues of the class.
Success in this story may be attributed to several aspects, among which the pedagogical support given to students and their involvement in a hands on community project. In order to give the students the opportunity to reflect about adolescence and the problems felt by children during this period of their lives, the Religious Education teacher used a game (Jogo de afetos, gostarzinho – the game of affections) which consists in a set of questions and situations which helped the students to reflect about very specific issues concerned with how they react in different situations with colleagues, teachers, friends and family. Success is also attributable to the many actors involved in showing these students how they could successfully relate to the school environment and its many ramifications into society: the teachers’ engagement was important, as was parental engagement; The school as a whole commitment to find ways to provide all the necessary requirements so that the work developed by the teachers and the institutions involved could be done is also laudable. Together they were able to improve the self-image the students had of themselves and of what school activities could also be like besides academic achievement.
This was clearly an educational activity at local level, through the involvement of the local Red Cross agency and two other charity organisations, who manifested willingness to cooperate with the school. These institutions involved in the project recognised the quality and social relevance of the work the students did throughout 21 weeks and were willing to continuing developing the community project for two further years. As a matter of fact, the Red Cross agency continues to count on these students for a variety of activities in favour of the community.
Although some students had to go to a different school, town or country and others were not able to pass due to their poor performance, the students who are still in the same class (15) have overcome problems of disrespect towards teachers and colleagues, and have been able to show that they can give a positive contribution to their community.
The way the parents expressed their recognition in terms of the amount of time dedicated by the teachers and the institutions involved, as well as the concern revealed by the school as a whole to help these students.
The transferability potential of this experience concerns the teachers’ vision and mobilisation, in articulation with community stakeholders, to give the students the opportunity to discover through volunteer work that they can give a positive contribution to the community (outside and inside the school). The (free) time these teachers were able to invest in these students is priceless. Children at risk need attention and attention implies time to hear them and to actually be with them and develop meaningful pedagogic activities that may not be inscribed in curricula.