11/25/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Learning Civic Responsibility

Students Give Back to Their Community

One million military service members are set to transition to civilian life between 2011 and 2016. With current unemployment rates alarmingly high among young veterans, this upcoming wave of veterans entering the civilian workforce challenges us all. Thousands of organizations including USAA, Starbucks, Amazon, General Electric and General Motors have set veteran hiring goals, and they are having a real impact.

Veteran unemployment has fallen from around 10 percent in 2012 to near the national average (6.7 percent) in 2013. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz explained, "This is just good business. This is not charity. This is not pity. This is the right thing to do for them and for us."

Doing the right thing is one of the ways we work together to strengthen community. As former president Bill Clinton said, "Our mission in this new century is clear. For good or ill, we live in an interdependent world. We can't escape each other. Therefore, we have to spend our lives building a global community of shared responsibilities, shared values, shared benefits."

Community innovation and sustainability require participation among all stakeholders. This is also true in education. Whether the setting is rural, urban or suburban, schools can contribute to their community by forging meaningful relationships for students.

In this, the season of giving back, we highlight a few schools that are committed to connecting their students, their school and the community at large.

Often you hear from educators that we strive to graduate students ready for "college, career and civic life." Class or school projects that contain civic engagement goals -- contrasted with organizing a food drive as an end in itself -- enable students to engage with community organizations.

The students at New Tech High @Coppell in Texas offer a great example. They strive to assure that all their fund raising events also give back to the community. According to Kelsey Gibson, a teacher of American Studies at New Tech@Coppell, the senior class votes each year for the charity they'd like to focus on across all their events. "This year the cause they chose was 'Stand for the Silent'," said Kelsey, "which isn't just about donating money, but also about raising awareness on bullying."

"'Stand for the Silent' was chosen not only because of the national conversation about bullying, but also because students have known people who have experienced bullying and understand how devastating that can be. The students felt that highlighting 'Stand for the Silent' was a way of joining with the greater community and letting affected students know they are not alone," continued Kelsey.

At Facing History New Tech High School in Cleveland, Ohio, the school's culture is deeply rooted to the community. Their recycling project isn't just about the environment, but is also about "giving back" -- providing recycled cell phones to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and clothing, shoes and books to Vietnam Vets of America. According to Facing History New Tech Teacher Doug Ramage, "This project incorporates the 'Facing History and Ourselves' philosophy of giving back to your community by being an 'Upstander' and 'Choosing to Participate.'" (Facing History and Ourselves connects the study of history to lessons about tolerance, respect and civic participation today.)

Giving back helps students expand their awareness of social problems and the role civic action plays in solving issues. We want students to experience taking action as part of their learning so they can begin to decide what roles they will play in their own communities. As the companies working to hire more vets have demonstrated, we can take steps that have a meaningful impact to help solve pressing societal issues. Our local classrooms provide terrific opportunities for students to discover more about their own community challenges and to take action to make a difference. And that's something to be thankful for this time of year.