An Invitation to Adult Citizenship

JACK CALHOUN

February 09, 1993|By JACK CALHOUN

I sit in my Virginia home two miles from the Potomac River and gaze with a certain envy toward the Maryland shore. The Free State has made an extraordinary statement about its belief in civic health and staked a claim on a healthy civic future.

Young people in Maryland are being asked, at some point within their high school careers, to spend a total of 75 hours -- roughly two work weeks in the adult world -- in service that benefits the community. We have many assets in Virginia, but nothing like this one.

Maryland's General Assembly has been asked to overturn this ** modest but remarkable requirement for high school graduation. If the state backs down from its landmark commitment, then teens, adults, and children across Maryland will be much the poorer for it. This requirement is a marvelous invitation to adult citizenship. To withdraw the invitation closes a bright, positive avenue available to -- and beneficial to -- every kind of youth.

In a world rife with fragmented families and anonymous neighborhoods, youth need opportunities to give, to bind themselves positively to the community, to try on adult roles in a supportive climate. The community needs to send the message that these youths are needed, that their skills are valued. Every kid aches to belong, to feel needed, to sense that he or she can make important contributions. Maryland's Board of Education saw this need and met it.

School-linked service also builds self-esteem. Research is clear that a sound sense of self-esteem is a key to averting self-destructive behaviors like delinquency and drug use. Moreover, our typical yardsticks for measuring success in school -- academics, athletics, popularity -- measure only what a relative few can give. Community service measures all by what each can and does give.

Are teachers facing too many demands on their time? Then let students help plan and lead the activities. Youth as Resources (a program created by the National Crime Prevention Council that is now seven years old in more than a dozen cities) has proved that honor students and near-dropouts, band members and basketball players, kids with records and kids who collect records can and do assume leadership roles in developing service projects, if given the challenge. The effects are remarkable and long-lasting, evaluation has shown.

Are schools overworked? Bring in community partners who can help manage and expand the process. Housing authorities, neighborhood associations, law-enforcement agencies, Boys & Girls Clubs, 4-H Clubs, Scouts, and many more have hosted and managed service activities conducted with and by youth. And they've benefited as much as their young partners. Youth

groups have enriched their own programs by engaging in community-service efforts that could be compatible with the state's requirements.

Are students overworked? Community service lets them finally put their skills to use; it should not be depicted as another ''lesson.'' It's a chance to take some initiative, to try out some skills, to get something done in the ''real world'' with those skills they have been acquiring for 9 to 12 years. It can be woven into established curricula. The experience gained by young participants can offer active, vital testimony to prospective employers and colleges.

Youth working as resources for their communities -- which Maryland's program has the potential to become -- have tackled every kind of social issue about which the adult community is concerned, from AIDS, hunger, literacy, teen pregnancy, dropping out and more. They've made a real difference in communities around the nation, a difference that Maryland can realize on an unprecedented scale if it helps its young citizens develop the habit of the heart that is community service.

Don't put down the torch of civic concern that your state has lighted and raised high. To paraphrase an old commercial, ''Try it; you really will like it.''

Jack Calhoun is executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council.

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