Maryland Debates the Merits of 'Required Voluntarism' for High Schoolers

November 03, 1991|By GELAREH ASAYESH

In Anthony Deliberti's office at Richard Montgomery High School, a black ribbon is taped to the wall next to a newspaper clipping. The headline: "Board Rejects Student Community Service."

The board in this case is the Montgomery County school board, one of a score of groups that has come out against the state proposal to make community service a high school graduation ** requirement in Maryland.

The ribbon is for mourning. With all due respect to his bosses, Mr. Deliberti, the county's community service coordinator, thinks they made the wrong choice. "We have a responsibility to give kids a flavor of community service," he says. "I think the state should do it, at all costs."

This conflict played out this past week before the state bkard of education, which is considering sweeping changes in Maryland's high school graduation requirements.

Though the more than one hundred speakers at this week's two-day hearing had plenty to say about all of the proposed requirments, the most controversial is the one that would make Maryland the first state in the country to mandate student service. A final vote is scheduled November 20.

The proposed service regulation, one paragraph long, says students will complete 75 hours of student service including "preparation, action and reflection." If the local school system chooses, this can begin in middle school. This mandate would take effect with the graduating class of 1996.

Similar requirements are common in private schools and have been in place for years in Atlanta, Detroit and scattered school districts throughout the country. Just last August, the District of Columbia mandated 100 hours of service for its students as part of an attempt to teach values.

At issue is the increasingly popular notion that social responsibility and a sense of civic duty are key parts of a quality public education. The proposal is part of Maryland's education reform effort, which in turn is part of the national crusade to make up what seems to be missing in today's graduates.

"What I'm interested in doing is sending a clear message to students in our county that we think community service is important," says Evelyn B. Holman, superintendent of Wicomico schools, one of two school systems favoring the board proposal. The other is Queen Anne's County, headed by former state superintendent Joseph Shilling.

Canton Middle School teacher Lou Williams, whose sixth-graders spend some class time three weeks a semester sweeping up garbage from O'Donnell Square, puts it this way: "Somebody has to teach them responsibility."

Mr. Williams believes projects such as the O'Donnell Square cleanup are teaching youngsters that sense of responsibility and civic duty.

Opponents of the requirement say required voluntarism is an oxymoron. They say making service mandatory takes something away from the experience.

But their most urgent objections are financial ones. They are worried about liability for injury or other problems that might occur while students are performing service, and they're worried about money to pay for coordinators of programs and transportation. They question whether there will be enough opportunities for thousands of students to perform service -- especially in the state's rural jurisdictions.

Students -- the Maryland Association of Student Councils has come out against the proposal -- also cite logistics as a key reason for keeping service out of high school graduation requirements. But students also worry about the effect on after-school jobs and packed high school schedules. "I think it'll really be just one more thing for people to worry about," says Mike Haynes, 16, a student at Richard Montgomery High School.

Most organized groups in the state representing teachers, superintendents, school boards and students have lined up against the proposal. A score of individuals from those same constituencies, however, showed up last week to argue for the ** requirement.

Given the painful financial decisions most school systems are making right now, even proponents admit that the timing of the service requirement is unfortunate. Though many schools run comprehensive service programs with the help of volunteer teachers and students, only one school system, Montgomery County, has a fulltime coordinator -- Mr. Deliberti.

"We have one of the poorest pupil-teacher ratios in the state," says Pete McDowell, director of secondary schools for Carroll County. "We're graduating about 1,500 to 2,000 kids a year. . . . We do not have the staff to monitor the program."

Although almost everyone last week was extolling the virtues of community service "as a concept," the reality undergirding school systems' arguments is that many question service as an educational activity.

Many educators and parents say students need to concentrate on essentials, such as writing and math.

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