Fund leads to service-learning projects for middle-schoolers

When Kurt Stemhagen, Ph.D. (M.T.’95/E), associate professor, and his colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education were brainstorming ways to get their students into practical classroom settings for training, the conversation turned to service-learning.

That 2013 brainstorming session led Stemhagen to Richmond Public School Board member Glen Sturtevant who pointed the VCU team in the direction of Albert Hill Middle School. Stemhagen and his colleagues met with teachers and parents to discuss potential projects.

“We wanted the work to be just as much about their community’s needs and interests as well as our own,” Stemhagen said.

Connecting a class curriculum with community needs is what service-learning is all about and no one knows this better than Anna Lou Schaberg (B.S.’66/E; M.Ed.’70/E), who led programs for gifted students at Richmond Public Schools for more than 20 years.

During conversations with the school’s dean, Christine S. Walther-Thomas, Ph.D., and Stemhagen, Schaberg learned that her interest in engaging youth was in line with the school’s need to provide practical teaching opportunities for its students.

“We talked about what could be an interesting addition to teacher education that isn’t typically explored,” Schaberg said. “So much is geared today toward standards of learning and outcomes, but there’s an older understanding of what a broad education is all about. We came to the notion of service-learning.”

As a result, Schaberg and her husband, Bob, through the Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Fund at the Virginia Nonprofit Housing Coalition, have supported graduate student service-learning initiatives at VCU.

Service-learning provides opportunities for students to immerse themselves in projects that benefit the community while following curriculum goals at the same time.

Meg Pienkowski, a VCU Ph.D. student at the School of Education who hopes to get her degree in 2016, now coordinates a pilot service-learning program at Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond, which was made possible by the Schabergs’ gifts.

Launched in spring 2014, the pilot program provided students with the opportunity to identify and address needs particular to them and their school. The students created two clubs and met once a week after school where members participated in problem-solving and goal-oriented activities involving ecology and student government.

A total of 14 VCU preservice teachers and more than 20 Albert Hill students participated in the pilot, which is a unique model where both teachers and students grow from the service-learning experience.

“I was excited about service-learning,” Schaberg said. “I was intrigued by the opportunity for middle school students to develop their skills in working collaboratively to identify and solve problems. Life is full of difficulties. Giving students the confidence that they can be tackled would be a real contribution.”

The partnership is now in its third semester and has expanded to include a language arts component during the school day.

“Our preservice teachers are learning so much about what teaching can be in terms of democratic education and developing relationships with students,” Pienkowski said. “Anna Lou is impacting a lot of lives with her generous gift; it is a gift that will have profound repercussions both in the classrooms at Albert Hill and beyond as our preservice teachers become teachers themselves. She had a vision.”

The Schabergs’ vision also has sites on the future.

“The program at Albert Hill has been so successful that an expansion to other middle schools is in development,” Walther-Thomas said. “We now have a new service-learning curriculum as part of our master of teaching program thanks to the vision and generosity of Anna Lou and Bob. They are partners in our continued development to provide unique learning opportunities for our students.”

For Anna Lou Schaberg, the partnership is equally beneficial.

“It’s wonderful to be in a position to help provide funding and encouragement. It’s an unexpected gift.”

To learn more about the School of Education, contact Magnus Johnsson (M.P.A.’10/GPA; Cert.’10/GPA), senior associate vice president of development, at (804) 827-1363 or