Update on PDS Service Learning Initiatives

Update (May 24): This story from earlier in 2021 has been updated with additional Lower School and Middle School service learning initiatives which have taken place after publishing.

Service Learning has always been an integral part of the Princeton Day School Community. Although this school year is different in significant ways, service learning continues to thrive among PDS students, faculty and staff. While many traditional service opportunities, such as the always popular bake sales, are not possible due to health and safety protocols, the students have found new and more intentional ways to serve their communities and create lasting relationships.

“This year we continue to focus on how to come up with truly meaningful service learning experiences. The students are taking the time to understand the problems, learn about the recipients and develop thoughtful plans for how to help, ” Director of Service Learning Margie Gibson explains.

Lower School Highlights

Update (May 24):

The Second Grade has replaced their traditional calendar sale with a notecard sale this spring to encourage connections among family and friends, which are essential for a strong community. The second graders designed cards and have advocated for the proceeds to go to three local organizations that are inclusive of all aspects of our community–the people, the animals and nature: The Watershed Institute, Homefront and EASEL Animal Rescue.

This service learning initiative took flight through a collaboration between the LS and MS; Computer Science teacher Toni Dunlap's Middle School students taking her Da Vinci website development course helped create a Notecard Website for the Second Graders to sell their notecards.

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When the Lower School approached their 100th day of school, teachers took this traditional learning opportunity and applied a service lens. PreK and Kindergarten created 100 notes showing kindness for people in the community, the First Grade collected 100 donated boxes of pasta and cans of sauce and the Second Grade collected 100 donated canned goods, including beans, vegetables and soup. Third Grade students created a collection of 100 masks, which reinforced their understanding of the importance of masks and how they protect not only themselves but the broader community. Fourth graders, who have participated in numerous service learning initiatives throughout the year, focused on advocacy work.

Middle School Highlights

Update (May 24):

Fifth Grade student Mo Clarke '28 recently delivered a presentation to the MS advocating for autism awareness and acceptance. To start, she unpacked what autism is and shared her own experiences living with and learning from her brother who has autism. Difficult public confrontations with people who were uncomfortable and unkind to her brother prompted Mo to become an advocate, speaking up about the importance of inclusion for neurodiverse learners. Through exploration of popular and heavily circulated memes, Mo helped her MS peers understand some of the behaviors exhibited in some people with autism, such as inability to maintain eye contact, being non-verbal and stimming (which is rocking or swaying) and how these particular memes mock and perpetuate myths and misunderstandings surrounding autism. To engage the MS in further discussion, Mo devised a follow-up activity, where MS students practiced discerning 1) what aspect of autism a collection of memes were addressing; and 2) if these memes were offensive.

While April is Autism Awareness month, Mo stressed the importance of understanding and accepting people and their differences no matter the time of year. In fact, she outlined ways to enrich our community, which included exercising kindness, speaking out against unfair treatment of others, and being patient with one another. As a result of her advocacy, Mo knows firsthand how everyone can be a force for good in the world. To conclude her presentation, Mo urged her peers to join her service learning efforts beyond our school community. These actions involve a range of activities from spreading the word about autism and promoting acceptance to joining local chapters of organizations like Special Olympics.

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In February, Middle School students created encouraging Valentines Day cards for nursing homes. You can view some of their uplifting messages in our Flickr album. The seeds for this act of service were linked to the efforts of the MS Student Service Learning Team. In the midst of quarantine last spring the MS team made a public service announcement (PSA), expounding on the positive effects that gratitude and acts of kindness have on mental health.


The Fifth Grade embarked this year on a robust service learning project that centered around Chimp Haven, which is the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary located in Louisiana. In Science class with Mrs. Clingman, her months-long exploration of cognition includes an extensive unit on animal cognition and focused explorations of how chimps can think. The students even had the opportunity to speak with one of the world’s leading experts on chimpanzees, Dr. Steve Ross. You can learn more about their talk and the amazing work that Chimp Haven is doing in our December 2020 news post and our September 2020 news post. Although the Fifth Grade bake sale to benefit Chimp Haven has been popular for the past few years, this year the students and Mrs. Clingman came up with an innovative Chores for Chimps initiative! The students asked their fellow students across the school to do chores at home to earn money that would help support the work of Chimp Haven. Results of the effort: more than $1,700 in donations was raised for Chimp Haven.

“That’s a lot of dog walking, dishes, laundry and beds made!" Mrs. Clingman noted. 

Below: Fifth Grade's five-minute public service video for Chores for Chimps:

Upper School Highlights

The Upper School focused this year on teaching students how to develop meaningful service learning opportunities. Following a template developed by the US Service Learning Committee, each grade went through a detailed process that allowed them to take ownership of their service. They began with a question or topic, conducted research about the issue, prepared a thorough plan of roles, responsibilities and timelines, implemented their plan, sought feedback in order to improve their plan, and then reflected on the experience.  Grade-level representatives explored everything from environmental service to helping those in need within our PDS and local communities.And of course, independent student service efforts abound, as always, based on their individual circumstances and interests. Gavin Yang ’23, for example, performed magic shows for local nursing homes over the holidays, as well as produced a series of magic shows that were available for free over Zoom. Yang took a passion of his, realized it could spread joy through his community, researched whether there was a need for it, and came up with a plan for how to create a meaningful relationship. His service work was highlighted in his local newspaper.

“Whether with pandemic limitations or without them, the hope is that our process for developing student-led service learning will lead to more authentic, reciprocal relationships that will inspire the students to continue to be engaged with their community,” Mrs. Gibson concluded.

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