Service Learning Unites Students and the Community for the Greater Good

Students participate in Earth Day

An Insider Interview with Ridgefield Academy Program Coordinator Jessica Brooks

Ridgefield Academy, an independent school tucked quietly in the West Mountain Historic District, enriches students’ learning experiences in ways that think—and act—outside the box. A cornerstone of the school’s educational philosophy, their Service Learning program teaches students civic responsibility while supporting their local and neighboring communities. Through active engagement in community service efforts, students learn about humanitarian themes such as empathy and kindness. The program is woven into the fabric of the school’s curriculum, and all K-8 students participate as part of their yearly coursework.

Jessica Brooks, a middle-school Spanish teacher and advisor, has taught at Ridgefield Academy for sixteen years, and has coordinated the Service Learning Program for the past five years of its approximately ten-year history at the school. We recently sat down with her to learn more about the program and how the school employs it to enrich the lives of its students and community.

Service learning at RA combines community service opportunities with classroom lessons and advisory programs.

As a teacher and coordinator of the program, can you share how Service Learning enriches the students’ education?
We want our students to become global citizens and understand that that doesn’t mean you have to do something big like start a non-profit to be one. You can, of course, but we try and show students that any good deed, any act of kindness can go a long way. Since all students are involved, Service Learning looks a little different in each grade. For the younger children, it’s more focused on character-building, so one grade might focus on friendship, another on kindness. As they get older, we begin to focus on specific topics, such as food insecurity, and the students will actively participate in community service efforts over the course of the year. Organizations with missions in that focus area come in and speak to the students about what they do, and then we try to incorporate the theme into much of what we do with the academic curriculum throughout the year.

Making blankets for The Center's emergency safe housing
Students participate in local food drives

Service learning is so much more than volunteering or just bringing a donation to a drive, and we try to ask and answer the who/what/why, the deeper questions behind each issue. Each trimester there is some involvement in service learning, whether it be researching a topic, participating in an event, or hearing from a particular organization. And by revisiting the theme or topic even when the service work for that trimester is over, and incorporating it into other coursework in some way, it really becomes embedded in the students.

It sparks interest and curiosity, and they ask more questions, and the questions lead to the creation of ideas, which gets them excited and very often leads to a desire to help another cause. They might see something on the news or hear something on the radio, but when they begin to ask the questions themselves, we see their curiosity motivate and energize them.


“The Service Learning Program helps students understand that they can help others and take action about whatever they are passionate about.”

Food Drive for Ridgefield Social Services
Cleaning up campus on Earth Day

Do students have their own interests for the type of organizations they want to work with or ideas to aid particular causes?
Our students are very creative with the efforts they want to support and it’s rewarding to witness their passion for various causes. Because each grade is focused on a particular theme, there are always organizations that each grade will work with, but we love it when they develop an interest in something on their own and take the lead.

For example, last year we had a student who felt very strongly about helping the people of Ukraine. So, he came up with an idea to fundraise and presented his idea to the school. When students approach the school with their own ideas, they learn firsthand what has to occur on the back-end to create a fundraiser. And he made it happen! He shared his idea with the school, put out the reminders, and we helped him create a committee that other students could sign up for, and all the documents he would need. Some students made posters, some made flyers, everyone had a job to do and we raised a lot of money for Ukraine.


“Every time a student comes to us with an idea, we do our best to support them because it’s so important to build on their interest so they can see the impact they can have. That’s what service learning is all about.”

Will R. initiated the Ukraine fundraiser at Ridgefield Academy
The fundraiser became a school-wide initiative

Can you share a few examples of the type of work the students are involved in or experiences they have with these organizations?
We support Ridgefield Social Services with many of our food drives, helping to fill the Ridgefield Food Pantry. During the pandemic, however, we collected money or use that money to buy gift cards.The Director of Social Services visits with our students in Grade 4 to share about the families they support, explain how they support them and help the students understand the need for their services. Our Thanksgiving food drive always supports RSS, and for the past two years we received ministry donations and grocery store gifts cards from our generous families.

Some of our collections will also go to our local Meals on Wheels food drives. Students decorate lunch bags for MOW to use for their clients, and in the spring we make sandwiches which our 5th graders volunteer to deliver to the families who participate in the MOW program. Since the pandemic we’ve run a food drive to help support their effort in providing meals, but we hope to bring back the in-person volunteer opportunities this year.

Packing meals for Dorothy Day Hospitality House
Ridgefield Academy delivering food donations to Meals on Wheels

With the Prospector Theater, we focus on lessons around empathy and showing compassion for adults with disabilities. Students have had bake sales and donated the proceeds to the theater. And this year, second grade teachers came up with an amazing idea to sell snacks in the lower school to raise money so we can buy a brick on their behalf which will in turn support the theater! The Prospector sells personalized sidewalk bricks from which the proceeds help support training and job opportunities for people with disabilities.

We’ve also worked with ROAR, Ridgefield Operation for Animal Rescue, the local animal shelter. A student requested to work with them because she felt such a connection to animals. So, she interviewed ROAR, and then we had a food drive for animals and donated all the food to the shelter.

Students assisting at the local food pantry
RA hosted a student-lead food drive for ROAR (Ridgefield Operation for Animal Rescue)

Can you tell us about some of the other community organizations whom RA students serve through the program?
The Service Learning Program partners with many organizations in the community, including Ridgefield Meals on Wheels, The Center for Empowerment and Education, Danbury Habitat for Humanity, Ability Beyond, Rise Against Hunger, Filling in the Blanks, and Dorothy Day Hospitality House.

What type of shift do you see in a student’s perception of their community, their neighbors, and their overall educational experience as a result of participating in a service learning program?
It really opens up their eyes. Students sometimes don’t realize that many of the issues that they are learning about are also happening here, either in their own community or one right next door. Sometimes issues occur on a more subtle level than they might expect. For example, food insecurity doesn’t necessarily mean someone is homeless and doesn’t know when they will have their next meal. It also means that someone could have a job and own a home, but they just don’t know if they’ll have enough money to feed their family properly.

In that sense, the students begin to understand that someone they may know, a neighbor for instance, might be struggling with food insecurity or another issue, and they learn to understand that these problems are not just “outside” problems. It really broadens our students’ views and this new knowledge sparks their curiosity. Their curiosity drives them to learn more, and in turn they become more invested in their education. And it comes full circle when a student then drums up their own idea of how to contribute to a cause or help solve a problem they feel passionate about.

Students delivered toys for the holidays and toured Family and Children's Aide.
Learning about kindness

Is there any way that the community at large can help support service learning efforts and the students involved?
We always appreciate local community support and the most beneficial way to help us is to promote and contribute to their events such as food drives, awareness campaigns, and fundraising. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful so if you hear of a drive or event we’re having, please share it with your family and friends or post it on social media. The more people who know we are rallying around an effort the better! Our students’ impact is made even bigger with the support of our local community.

Learn more

Learn more about Ridgefield Academy’s Service Learning Program

Experience Ridgefield Academy’s campus at an upcoming virtual or in-person event:

  • Elementary School Open House (K – Grade 4) – October 16th
  • Middle School Minded Virtual Session – October 25th
  • Kindergarten at Ridgefield Academy Virtual Session – November 29th
  • Tuition Assistance Virtual Session – December 13th