Some Baltimore area school officials reacted with an air of resignation yesterday to a pioneering new rule making community service a condition of obtaining a high school diploma.
"It's not the end of the world," said Dr. Stuart Berger, superintendent in Baltimore County, responding to the action of the state Board of Education. "I think the pluses probably outweigh the minuses."
"Mandatory volunteerism is a peculiar notion," said Deborah D. Kendig, chairwoman of the Howard County school board, where officials had opposed the mandate.
Maryland is the first state to make high school graduation contingent on student service. The requirement, which starts with next year's incoming ninth-graders, is part of a sweeping revision of the state's high school graduation requirements.
Those new standards also contain tougher mathematics and social studies requirements, as well as health and technology education. But student service is by far the most controversial element, championed by the state as a way to build citizenship skills.
Under the rule approved yesterday, local school systems will be allowed to design their own student-service programs, subject to state approval. If there is no local program, students will have to perform 75 hours of service to satisfy the state requirement.
Board members approved the overall package of changes by a unanimous vote. But that approval came only after a failed attempt by opponents to kill the statewide mandate. "I'm an enthusiastic supporter of volunteerism -- I'm just opposed to requiring it," said John C. Sprague, vice president of the board.
He cited opposition to the plan from most of the state's local boards and superintendents.
But supporters hailed the move as a long-overdue addition to the curriculum. "I am absolutely thrilled, at the opportunity," said Maurice Howard, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Baltimore.
Mr. Howard cited studies showing that student achievement increases when service is related to a particular class. "When you take service and you link it to instruction . . . you improve performance," he said.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, also said the benefits can spill over into the classroom.
"The research shows very clearly that the sense of responsibility increases, the sense of understanding of the world and community issues is increased," said Ms. Townsend.
Others were far less enthusiastic.
"We felt it was a contradiction to mandate volunteer community service," said Dorothy Chaney, Anne Arundel school board vice president.
"We've supported the concept of community service, but we have problems with record-keeping and logistics," said Daniel Jett, director of Howard County high schools.
"This is just another example of the state mandating programs that will need funding when there is very little available," said Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association.
Peter B. McDowell, Carroll County's director of secondary education, noted that Carroll's secondary schools have had voluntary student-service organizations for several years. "We have seen a lot of good things," he said. "However, we don't know how it will be when imposed or mandated on students."
But even those who raise practical concerns say that the program is likely to have some benefits. Vincent Leggett, president of the Anne Arundel board, said that students may make job contacts and learn work ethics, while community agencies will benefit from the additional help.
"In these tough economic times, everyone wants an extra set of intelligent hands," Mr. Leggett said.