End run on community service?

January 04, 1993

There are some things you can't learn in a classroom, an community service is one of them. To understand what it means to read to a nursing home patient or clean up a stream, you can't just sit in a civics class. You have to do it.

That is the spirit behind a new state requirement that students complete roughly 75 hours of community service before graduation.

Unfortunately, an Anne Arundel school committee's plan to let students fulfill this requirement as part of their regular classes does not adhere to that spirit.

The committee suggests the community service hours include time spent studying volunteerism in class or doing chores in school. If teachers agreed, a student could fulfill his or her community service duty without setting foot in the community.

This is not what state educators intended. They wanted to give students a taste of reality beyond school grounds, to make them understand what it means to be responsible to others, to inspire a lifelong interest in community work, to make a difference in the world around them. But the local committee seems more concerned with finding an expedient way for students to rack up hours.

In fairness to the local school system, the state has provided no money to implement the community service requirement, so of course local educators want to reduce costs. Also, some of the hours certainly could be fulfilled in school while preparing for or evaluating community work, or while performing school-related services. Tutoring younger students, spearheading food drives -- such activities clearly fall within the spirit of the state mandate.

The danger of Anne Arundel's plan is that it relies too much on the old classroom mentality. By building service instruction into the curriculum, it turns community service into just another course requirement.

It makes it too easy for teachers to say, "Today, we are going to plant trees," so students never have to devise their own ideas. And it is not specific about what school-related activities are acceptable as community service. Mentoring is one thing; washing blackboards is another.

Maryland's service requirement is the first in the nation, so it will be a victory to see any plan in place. Still, before this Arundel proposal is approved, the committee should make it more community-oriented, as state educators intended all along.

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