Maryland would become the first state in the nation to require community service as a high school graduation requirement under a plan that awaits approval by the state school board today.
But the pioneering proposal faces heated debate by the board, as opponents question its wisdom and educational value.
The plan is part of a sweeping revision of the state's high school graduation requirements, effective for incoming ninth-grade students in the 1993-1994 school year.
Other changes would require students to take algebra and geometry, technology education and a detailed menu of social studies courses.
But student service is by far the plan's most controversial aspect, denounced by one critic as "involuntary servitude."
The idea, first proposed more than a year ago, seems simple.
To graduate, students would have to perform 75 hours of volunteer work in their community, or complete a similar program designed by their local school district. That work could include everything from tutoring younger students and visiting senior citizens' centers to working with environmental groups.
Supporters say the program should help foster a life-long commitment to citizenship and community responsibility, said Nancy S. Grasmick, state school superintendent.
"There's a real opportunity . . . for students to gain the skills and devel
op a sense of giving that is enriching to their lives."
But the plan set off a firestorm of criticism last fall, including complaints from local superintendents about its cost and practicality.
Bowing to those complaints, the school board revised its original plan to give each local system a chance to craft its own program. That was enough to win support from most local superintendents, said Harold J. Winstanley, president of the superintendents' association. But others continue to assail the concept.
Jane R. Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, called the plan "involuntary servitude," even citing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery.
If the plan is approved by the board, it would face certain legal and constitutional challenges, she warned. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education also opposes the plan.
"The basic objection is theoretical," said Margaret-Ann Howie, an official with the group.
"If students are to learn the sorts of values that would make them civic-minded, it's impossible to mandate those values."
And Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said that community service has no academic value.
"Education, as far as we're concerned, is generally book-learning," she said. "That is what the high school diploma signifies."
Supporters of the plan reject that view, however. "This isn't 'volunteerism' -- it is learning the skills of citizenship," said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance.
"It's like math or science or religion or history. These things are not automatic. You have to learn them."
Requirements include . . .
* Perform 75 hours of community service work or complete a student service program spelled out by their school district and approved by the state school superintendent.
* Complete 21 credits, up from 20.
* Take one credit of algebra and one credit of geometry as part of a three-credit math requirement.
* Take a half-credit in physical education, rather than a full credit; take a half-credit in health education.
* Complete a course in "technology education."
* Take a course in U.S. history, a course in world history and a course in local, state and national government to satisfy at least three credits in social studies.
The requirements would apply to students entering the ninth grade in the 1993-1994 school year.