Community Service: Is It Education?

November 24, 1991|By MARK GUIDERA

A daily ritual that occurs during lunch hour in the cafeteria of Baltimore's harsh inner-city Francis M. Woods experimental school invariably holds James Toney spellbound.

As soon as the educator enters the cafeteria, he is surrounded by anxious teens, most of them at the school because they have rock-bottom academic, attendance or behavior histories. As they clamor for the educator's attention, all have a look of high hope in their faces. They ask the same question:

Has Mr. Toney found them a placement yet in the school's community-service program?

The program, launched by Mr. Toney and the school principal, Jack Nauright, so far this school year has placed about 90 of the school's 350 students as volunteers in community projects. They spend half of their school day as volunteer tutors at nearby elementary schools, aides in hospitals and in area community and housing associations.

Virtually every volunteer, Mr. Toney says, has come to him with an anecdote about an experience that has taught a soulful lesson -- a value -- no classroom routine could have passed on as powerfully. The most common reward, he thinks, is that one's own senses of responsibility, self-esteem and empowerment grow with the experience of making a positive contribution to others' lives.

For a majority of young people involved with community service work, ''A little revolution within occurs,'' says Bill Kennedy, the director of the community-service program at Loyola High School in Towson, a Jesuit-run preparatory school where community service has been a requirement for graduation since the late '70s. ''They come through it with a certain wisdom about the human condition and about themselves. Almost all of them feel they have crossed some threshold. They can't always articulate it, but that threshold is maturity.''

Mr. Kennedy has come to view the experiences students encounter in their community-service work as a rite of passage.

''In our modern-day society we have no formal rites of passage for kids to adulthood. It's my gut feeling it's for that reason many young people feel alienated from society. The community-service work provides that rite of passage. Students move from the world of being nurtured by parents and society to being asked to take on roles nurturing society. It's very transformative.''

At the core of many students' experiences -- whether coaching blind children in sports or lending an ear to the homeless at a shelter -- is a quickened understanding of what values in life are enduring.

And both Mr. Toney, the public system educator, and Mr. Kennedy, the Catholic system educator, agree on one other element of community-service work -- an element many public school system educators shy away from discussing: Community service work can tap a young person's spirituality or at least provide an awareness that spirituality is part of life.

Says Mr. Toney, ''There is definitely an element of spirituality in the community-service experience. The kids sense it. It's that warm inner glow they get from helping others. I hear it time and again in their stories about their experiences in the program.''

Notes Mr. Kennedy, ''We've found no classroom lecture can as profoundly pass on a sense of life's enduring values and a sense of life's spirituality as the community-service work.''

It is this potent power of community-service programs -- the power to transmit important human values -- that has educators nationwide moving toward blending youth service programs into core curriculums in high schools and colleges. Nationally, many private schools, including the Catholic Archdiocesan Schools of

Baltimore, have mandated community service in high schools for many years.

According to a review of high school community-service programs conducted in 1989 by Dan Conrad for the University of Minnesota, about 27 percent of all high schools nationally offer some type of community-service program. Maryland is one of two states that require public schools to ''encourage'' voluntary community service among high school students, and it seems to be lurching toward making such service a requirement. Three public high school systems -- those of Detroit, Atlanta and Washington -- mandate community service.

In Maryland, debate on the state board of education's proposal to require public school students to complete 75 hours of community service as a high school graduation requirement has centered on two main questions: How would such a plan be administered in the face of budget cuts? And is community service really an educational activity?

Answering those and other questions boggled the state board of education enough Wednesday to delay its scheduled vote on the proposal until next month.

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