For Students to Find Their Strengths

PATRICK ERCOLANO

February 06, 1993|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Fans of irony don't often come across such a tidy package as the one offered in local newspapers on January 28.

The papers led that day with the public viewing of Thurgood Marshall's coffin at the Supreme Court in Washington. Mourners who were quoted spoke sadly of the Baltimore native's passing, but proudly of what he represented. They made special note of his advocacy of the downtrodden and his belief that we all owe something of ourselves to society.

The metro pages told of an event with a different spirit, taking place 30 miles away in Annapolis, at the same time as the Marshall viewing. The reports were of public officials urging legislators to quash Maryland's community-service requirement for public-school students.

At the Supreme Court, people talked about giving of themselves to their communities. At the State House, people talked about community service as a big hassle.

Even before the state Board of Education's announcement last August that 75 hours of community service would be required of public-school students -- starting this fall with the graduating class of 1997 -- opponents of the plan were carping.

It will detract from academics, they said, and still say. The kids are too busy to make time for it. Transportation to service sites could be difficult. Who would be liable if a student caused a mishap at a facility?

Some critics, including Jane Stern, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, argued that the requirement violates the 13th Amendment's prohibition against ''involuntary servitude.''

Funny, but isn't that how a lot of kids describe their classes?

Sen. Fred Malkus of Dorchester County, co-sponsor of a bill to block service from being a condition of graduation, compared the program to the community work required of some convicted criminals. And a Salisbury State University professor of economics wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the initiative is Maryland's way of using ''unpaid child labor'' to meet the growing demand for social services.

If the issue were a requirement that teens leave their homes and get their schooling at state-run boot camps, with extra-curricular duty on highway chain gangs, then all this whining might be understandable.

But, as voluntary student service programs here and in other states already indicate, the idea deserves applause, not a chorus of raspberries. The existing programs prove the point that proponents of the new requirement have sought to make -- namely, that students get as much out of the arrangement as do the recipients of the aid. They get a sense of purpose, self-esteem, sensitivity to the less fortunate.

Education officials admit they did a lousy job of selling the program. They also failed to anticipate the virulence of the criticism.

They've since made adjustments. The key one gives each jurisdiction's school officials virtual carte blanche in implementing the program. Students will have numerous options for fulfilling the requirement. They can work in the community at, say, a nursing home or a recycling center, or closer to campus through such projects as cleaning a nearby stream, drafting mock legislation in social-studies class or tutoring schoolmates.

This fine-tuning should help eliminate the main criticisms of the program. The transportation problem? Many service opportunities will be available in and around schools. Liability? Students could go only to agencies that carry insurance for non-staff workers.

Detract from academics? The service component can be worked into the curriculum, as with the social-studies example above. Too expensive? Hardly, say local school officials, who will have state grants to cover the minimal costs. Kids don't have the time? According to Nielsen Media Research, the average American teen watches about 17 hours of TV per week. Over four school years, the student service requirement of 75 hours comes to only about 30 minutes per week -- or 1/34th of the average teen's TV time.

The excuses don't cut it. Senator Malkus and his pals should drop their demagogic bill and worry about more pressing matters. The service program deserves a chance. If it proves a huge disaster after a few years, it can be scrapped. What will probably happen is that most critics of the program will come around to its worthiness. The real convincer, though, will be the testimony of the kids, who'll find that by tending to the frailties of others they'll discover the strengths within themselves.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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